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My Enemy of Progress

Perfection is simply not attainable. Most of the time, it’s an unnecessary pressure we put upon ourselves (or put upon others).  

One month into my first professional job, my boss looked me directly in the eyes and told me to “go f**k up.”

The VP of Marketing randomly called me into his office to give the order. His delivery was deadpan—no smile, no wink, no nod. Just a direct order from one of the most respected executives at the company. I froze in his doorway for a solid three seconds.

I’d just finished graduate school and never heard a senior professional drop the f-bomb in the workplace—I was that green. My brain was racing to try and decipher the directive. Was he planning to provide a little more context? I was struggling to read between the lines. 

It took a while for his message to sink in, but those three words were more powerful than I ever imagined. In fact, they were liberating. 

Why? I was a perfectionist. I was terrified of making a mistake. I was apprehensive to speak up in meetings unless I was sure my idea was a winner. I wasn’t pushing any new concepts or ideas. I was simply fulfilling my job description to the best of my abilities.

My boss at the time was empowering me to tap into my full potential. He knew that “playing it safe” led to good work, but not great work. But when you’re permitted to make mistakes, you’re free to think big and push boundaries. 

Perfection is simply not attainable. Most of the time, it’s an unnecessary pressure we put upon ourselves (or put upon others).  

Are you a perfectionist or have one on your team? The first step in addressing perfectionism is awareness. Here are five telltale signs:

  1. Difficulty completing tasks on time. Perfectionists can get so mired in the details they easily miss deadlines. They will often re-do work that was already done.
  2. Highly defensive to feedback. It’s common for perfectionists to be so afraid of failure that they simply can’t handle feedback from others. Instead, they get highly defensive because they feel overly-invested.
  3. Inability to delegate. It’s rare that anyone can complete a task to a perfectionist’s standards, so they’d rather just do it themselves.
  4. Highly critical. They often find what's wrong with something rather than what’s right.
  5. Constantly seeking the approval of others.  Perfectionists want others to validate their work—obsessively. They constantly seek to meet everyone's expectations and ensure they are on the right track.

Perfectionism is an ongoing struggle for me. Even writing this article I’ve found myself second-guessing certain aspects—rewriting them again and again. That said, I’ve made huge progress and you can too. For me, it’s understanding the law of diminishing returns and that I am actually more productive when I’m able to push back on these tendencies.

If you have an employee who struggles with perfectionism, don’t be afraid to permit them to make mistakes. Of course, you don’t need to use profanity like my former boss, but they will appreciate the freedom and you’ll find yourself with a happier and more productive team member. 


Kevin Nichols is a partner with Oechsli, a firm that specializes in research and training for the financial services industry. @KevinANichols

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