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When I was entering the job market in my early twenties, I tried to be proactive and prepare for the inevitable interview process. The hypothetical question that all the articles told me I had to be ready for that freaked me out the most was the perennial: What is your greatest weakness? I still hate this question. I mean, there you are, trying your best to sell yourself in a high pressure situation and then you’re forced to talk about your less than ideal points? Plus, according to said interview advice, what you were really supposed to do was choose a “weakness” that you could spin as a positive, meaning that the entire exchange was just an elaborate test of whether or not you could bullshit effectively. Ugh. Anyhow, I chose perfectionism as my flaw, which was one of the examples used on the internet as a good choice. Because perfectionism (I thought) shows that you are actually very diligent, hardworking, detail oriented, and competent.

I never got asked that question in an interview.

Which is just as well, because after having spent years and years of my life as a recovering perfectionist, I can say with authority that the negatives far outweigh any positives. And if I had answered the way I’d planned to anyone with insight into human character, it might very well have cost me the job.

Nothing and no one living is always perfect. (Photo by jfh686 on flickr)

Not convinced? Let me draw your attention to some perfectionism highlights:

1. Freeze/block: Yes, perfectionism can cause things like writer’s block. I know because to this day it gives me trouble while I’m writing. Once a perfectionist realizes there is no way to get a given job done perfectly, it becomes oh so very difficult to do that job at all. At least, if we actually care about the job at all. The less we care, the easier it is to avoid the freeze.

2. Inefficiency: Unless the perfectionist’s target IS efficiency, of course. Because it’s so hard for us to leave something alone and actually call it done. If we just made another little tweak…or a hundred. If we only had time to start over. You’d better hope your perfectionist is feeling perfectionistic about deadlines, or it’s all over. (Happily, I am in fact a perfectionist about deadlines, so at least I get to finish, whether I like it or not.)

3. Stress: If you aren’t a perfectionist yourself, just imagine a world in which everything you are even tangentially involved with has to be perfect and go exactly as planned. And if it’s not perfect, you have failed and it is All. Your Fault. And if it doesn’t go as planned, then life is ruined. And if only you could be a little better, maybe all the problems in the universe would disappear. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

4. Obliviousness, otherwise known as self denigration: Because perfectionists hold ourselves to such impossible standards, we often fail to notice, or give ourselves appropriate credit for, the awesome things we may accomplish. We may not notice positive character traits, and if we do, we think they’re no big deal. If we achieve something big, we focus on what we didn’t achieve yet, something we failed at, or explain why it isn’t important: Well, but I’ve only made one pro sale. Well, but I’ve only sold one novel. Well, but I was only able to succeed at x because I failed so spectacularly at y. Well, but I’m not that intelligent because I don’t have a PhD/don’t have a deep understanding of quantum mechanics/don’t speak six different languages fluently.

So yes, all is not fun bright times in perfectionism world. While perfectionism does often create driven personalities who go on to achieve great things, I think there are ways of being driven and ambitious without being quite so hard on ourselves. One of my favorite parts of The West Wing was when President Bartlett had dealt with a problem, often less than perfectly, often when there were no good solutions or easy answers. He’d always turn right around and say, “What next?” What next allows us to focus on what we can do instead of dwelling on our inability to be perfect.

Any other perfectionists out there? Any strategies you use to help you work through it? Any aspects you find especially difficult? I’d love to hear from you.

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