Over the years, every interview I had would inevitably lead to the same question and the same response to my answer. They would ask what I thought my biggest weakness was. I would say perfectionism. They would roll their eyes, laugh, and say, “Oh, okay. So you try too hard and do things too well? Can you give me an actual weakness?” Sigh. If only it were that simple.
Perfection at Work
In many ways, the traits of perfectionism are considered strengths. Perfectionists tend to set incredibly high standards and goals and work hard to achieve them. They are driven and often thrive on challenges. (I can hear the recruiter now: “Sounds great! You’re hired!”) But all too often, perfectionists’ standards shift from incredibly high to impossibly high. Fear and self-criticism cloud judgment and impact performance. Suddenly, the person who once was getting everything done no longer gets anything done.
Perfectionism can create an exhausting, endless cycle that impacts your mental health and can have unexpected consequences for your professional development. However, recognizing when this trait is out of alignment can help you recalibrate and move forward.
One of the main ways perfectionism shows up at work is through avoidance. Fueled by a fear of failure, even small tasks can become overwhelming. If you think there’s a chance you won’t complete the task perfectly (well enough to meet the high standards you’ve set for yourself or that you believe others have set for you), you might find yourself avoiding the task altogether. You have probably thought, “I’ll just wait to do this until I have enough time, the right resources, etc.” But of course, waiting for the “right” time to do the entire task perfectly means avoiding the work.
Perfection and Avoidance
Unfortunately, this avoidance pattern can appear to colleagues as procrastination, poor time management, or laziness. Catch yourself heading down this path when you put off tasks and reframe the approach. Tell yourself you can work on it for five or ten minutes to get past that mental block.
While some tasks may feel impossible to start, others may feel impossible to finish. A perfectionist may struggle with the idea of “good enough.” This creates a zone where you’re constantly doing work but the tasks or projects are never completed. Insecurities and a fear of rejection drive this pattern. When you finish something and put it out in the world, you’re opening yourself to feedback and, as your fear will tell you, possible criticism and rejection Try to shift out of this negative mindset by focusing on what you enjoy about the work and the joy or pride you feel from accomplishing tasks.
When left unchecked, striving for perfection can lead you straight to burnout. The ongoing avoidance and/or refinement of work can make you feel entirely stuck. And while you hoped to avoid negative feedback for not doing something perfectly, you might be setting yourself up for criticism when your team feels you aren’t getting work done.
Be mindful of your patterns. Try different strategies to unblock yourself so you can make progress. Have confidence in yourself and know that you got to be where you are because you’re great at what you do — not because you are perfect at what you do.