The Myth of Perfection - a view from top speaker David McQueen
As a little boy I remember my parents drumming into me that I had to work hard to do well in life. Keep my head down, don’t talk back and give it my all. In addition it was important for to work twice as hard as my white colleagues to get ahead.
So I went to primary school and worked my arse off. Apparently my teachers told my parents from a young age I complained saying that I didn’t come to school to play in the sand but to learn history, reading and writing. Very early signs of being problematic!
In primary, I got into the top Maths groups and English groups and bust my arse to do the work even though sometimes the way my Dad taught learning in comparison to school brought on some serious anxiety. I couldn’t sing the times table at school and grammar was a myth but heck you adapt anyway. Then came high school.
In year 7 I took a test and I floundered big time. I went from being in the top set of maths to being streamed to group four. Four! Do you know who my parents are? I complained that it was too boring and the Maths teacher couldn’t understand why I would finish work so early and correctly. I knew there was an end of year test and I said I wanted the higher paper and he laughed at me. My form tutor however listened and I passed with flying colours and ended up in the top set again. But the anxiety was crippling for a twelve year old, I can tell you.
Fast forward a number of years, exams over, law degree abandoned after the first year and I enter the world of work. Again my parents drive home this mantra of the need to work five times as hard as my white colleagues (what kind of maths is this?), keep my head down, do a brilliant job and give it 110%. I truly love my parents but I think this advice is misguided.
I tried to adopt this method working hard, staying late and looked around me and realised I was one of the few doing this. Most left work on time. There were some seriously mediocre colleagues around me, some who got promoted for reasons that still baffle me and for many done was better than perfect.
As I segued out of my stints in corporate and became a consultant and then started to run my own training and coaching company it increasingly dawned on me how damaging this notion of perfection was not only to me but for so many people across private and public sectors who suffered tremendously under this expectation of perfection. Not just twenty somethings who think that every major career milestone needs to be achieved before thirty but also the more experienced women and men who suffered with imposter syndrome.
So I just want to say once and for all, for those in the front and the back, perfection is a myth.
As humans, we are messy and complicated creatures both in and out of work. Even when are at the top of our game there are moments of self doubt, wondering how others may perceive the work we do, performance anxiety and a host of other narratives running through our mind on how well we are doing. This is natural and nothing to be ashamed of. However, for way too many professionals this whole concept of perfection is actually debilitating. At the extreme case it can have devastating effects but even at it’s most basic it can have us ashamed of who we are and what we do.
I write this as a speaker and trainer who often gets feedback on my sessions. I can have 99 people say that I was engaging, funny, informative and one could say, well I am not sure I bought into what he was saying. Guess which one of those I want to find where they live and stand outside of their window saying “Oi mate, what do you mean you weren’t sure?”
Not literally, obviously.
But slowly and surely I have learned to live with not being perfect (even if my wife and biz partner says I need to up my admin game) and being comfortable with the notion that sometimes good is good enough.
Here is one ugly part of perfectionism that we don’t talk about a lot but is just as important.
When you are a perfectionist you tend to look down on others who don’t meet “your standard”.
We become these awful critics, whether we voice it or not, often people can read it from our body language and in turn we become crap leaders and managers who end up micromanaging those who we hired for their skill. We lack trust in the ability of others to do a good job just because they don’t do it the same way as us. We become, let me not mince my words, the shithead we always say we would never want to work with or work for. If nothing else, this should be a major reason to park it.
So now I have identified what is a pressing issue for many, and I imagine all the heads nodding from reading and saying aloud “Oh my God, that’s me” let’s go into coaching mode and address how we can tackle this.
Rewrite the perfection handbook
Does anyone care if you are perfect? No. All this nonsense about having to work twice or five times as others because of race is crap. How do you even measure twice as hard as anyone else? What does that actually look like not only in terms of performance but also how does it affect your health? I frankly told my parents that while I respect their journey I would never compare myself to others on arbitrary bases such as race. Once I start to think that way I have already lost and I have no intention of repeating those anxieties I suffered as a kid.
As a father to two girls I have also had to advise my girls that good is enough. They are under pressure from society as young women to look and behave a certain way, I am not going to add to that with some fictious notion that working twice as hard yields some advantage. I am out here wishing them to thrive not survive.
Many of the perfectionist handbooks we are given are handed to us by outside agencies. Family, community, media, school and it is important that we live life on our terms not others. Easier said than done for sure but at some point we have to own the direction we want our lives to go in. Write your own rules.
Stop Measuring Performance as a Percentage
It’s actually such bollocks to think of your work in proximity to 100%. Screw all these memes that talk about giving 110%, working hard when everyone is asleep and ignore all those motivational videos and whatever that support that thinking. Be kind to yourself and be your best you. Here’s the thing and it might be a tough pill to swallow but it’s important. If after giving all this percentage stuff you were to become ill or something untoward happened, do you think life would go on or your company could find a replacement? If the answer is yes then cut yourself some slack. Work hard by all means but cut yourself some slack.
Get a mentor/coach
I know this sounds too ideal but navigating work, especially when under pressure is not a single journey. What coaches and mentors can do is readily challenge your behaviour and offer some suggestions. Are you not finishing tasks on time because you want it to be perfect? Are you critical of others who you don’t think are up to scratch like you? Are you afraid to ask for help because your perfectionism prevents you? These are some of the questioning tools coaches and mentors can walk you through with solutions at the end. I can tell you as an executive coach almost all of my clients get these questions at some point.
Set SMART Goals
I love SMART goals. It maybe a bit cliche but the ATTAINABLE, REALISTIC and TIMELY part of those goals are a great way of getting you and I to focus on what is real and not what is perfect. Keeping those goals as small reachable targets can take so much pressure of trying to think goals have to be these massive all-singing all-dancing perfection fests.
Being ok with mistakes
When people tell me they are afraid of failure, I often ask,
“Is it failure you are afraid of or making mistakes?”
They are different things and often, way too often, people conflate the two. So let me explain it here.
Failure is getting to the wrong destination. Mistakes are taking the wrong direction on the way to a destination. Mistakes are so much easier to correct and are recoverable.
Too often perfectionists see mistakes as failures when they are anything but. Sending out a pitch deck in Arial instead of Calibri is not a failure, and can easily be fixed if neccessary. *As long as it’s not Comic Sans you’re good*
You don’t need to compare.
Comparison is the thief of joy. People complain about social media and the narratives that make people feel that they haven’t reached a certain goal yet. This is horseshit, because we have been comparing for donkey’s years. The only issue is that we have not informed each other on how to celebrate what we have done and be content with that.
Count your blessings. If you are reading this then you have access to the internet that is a blessing.
Run your own race. As a former athlete (ok it was in school but hey) I always did well in races when I focused on what I was good at. Running your own race means you switch off in your own head the comparisons to others and just be happy for those who are doing their do. No need to resent. Do you. Why? The person you are comparing yourself too also has their own imperfections and anxieties and is just if not more worried than you. So do you.
My final bit of advice is for you to celebrate yourself. Go and have a look at your CV, Linkedin profile, business achievements or the friends and family around you who champion you. Look at what you have achieved that has added value to you and has added value to others. People appreciate you for you. No one actually wants you to be perfect. Yes of course we all love a job well done. One that meets our expectations and of course we are chuffed if it goes over and beyond but the exception over the rule is not sustainable. Heck the exception then becomes the rule if we are honest.
I see way too many professionals beat themselves up around perfection when they don’t have to.
The whole concept of perfection in your work (heck life) is a recipe for anxiety, imposter syndrome and other debilitating narratives that stop you from just being you. Perfection is a myth and it would do you well to recognise that and arrest it in it’s tracks before the myth devours you.
Hope this helps someone today.
Here’s to your wellness.