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Fighting Perfectionism, Striving for Excellence

Do you have an ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude? Are you quick to start things but then struggle to finish them? Do you procrastinate? Do you suffer from self-deprecation and low self-esteem? It’s all too common to throw around the euphemism, “I’m a perfectionist,” but true perfectionism is a destructive force that can seriously affect everything from your work life to your personal relationships, and can slowly chip away at your sense of self-worth.

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The media-entrepreneur-turned-trainer and writer Ela Crain discovered several years ago how her perfectionist tendencies were undermining her happiness and success, and decided to make a change. Now she gives talks and coaches others on perfectionism’s dark power, and how setting realistic goals and celebrating achievements can help anyone enjoy their journey toward excellence.

In order to understand the problem of perfectionism, it’s important to figure out how to recognize it. “In very simple terms, perfectionism is a desire to achieve an impossible state called perfect,” Ela says. “But in more complicated terms, it’s an outlook, it’s a habit that makes you constantly see imperfections, mistakes, and failures. On a more personal level, perfection is a feeling that no matter what you do, it’s not enough. And as a result you strive not to make any mistakes whatsoever.” This also means that perfectionists always strive to please others, rather than searching for what would make them feel truly fulfilled. “Perfectionists look at themselves and imagine how people might perceive them,” explains Ela. “They don’t ask themselves ‘why am I here, what do I have to say?’ If you’re a perfectionist, you’re trying to match others’ standards and not your own.”

You may think that perfectionism is an asset in your working life, but that is unlikely to be true. In fact, Ela says that it often leads to procrastination and an inability to meet deadlines. “People think ‘if I try it and I’m not good at it, then I’ll be exposed and I will have to face my failure, so let’s not start it.’ This means they spend too much time planning so as not to make a mistake.” Ela recalls her work with an award-winning teacher whose achievements were evident to everyone else, but who could only see the imperfections in himself and wasn’t able to enjoy his success. Perfectionists are also plagued by a deep fear of success and of being exposed as imperfect or as an imposter.

In terms of leadership, perfectionism poses an even greater threat, which can affect the whole team. “Perfectionists generally get bogged down in detail and planning and don’t get to express their vision, and this interrupts their creativity,” Ela explains. “Ideas are like seeds in our minds and we need to give them the space to grow and water them regularly. But if you are a perfectionist, before things can grow, you start judging them, wondering if they’re good enough, because you have such high expectations of yourself and your ideas. So, you slaughter your ideas before they mature into something special.” She notes that perfectionists have a hard time finishing things for this reason, because finishing something often opens you up to criticism.

But isn’t wanting to achieve the highest possible standard a good thing? Well, yes and no. Ela qualifies this by making a critical distinction: “I separate perfectionism from excellence. For me, perfectionism is a negative trait that puts pressure on you, whereas saying ‘I’m here for a reason and I’m going to express what I have to say from the bottom of my heart,’: that’s healthy.” Both want to achieve similarly high goals, but those striving for excellence pay attention to the journey rather than the destination. They embrace a learning curve rather than identifying setbacks as failures. Plus, Ela reiterates, you often make discoveries along the way. Plus, she posits:

“If you do everything right 100% of the time, not only you would eliminate all the surprises but you’d also rob yourself of an invaluable learning curve.”

Ela also suggests implementing SMART Goals: S for specific, M for measurable, A for attainable, R for realistic, and T for timely. For instance, she explains: “If you want to be wealthy, define what wealth means to you. Specify the income and assets that will make you feel financially secure. Define where you are today, and measure the steps between where you are and where you aim to be. Define attainable and realistic goals: you can switch careers at any age. With thorough planning and consistent action, any objective is attainable. However, wanting to be the best at your new career within a year would be unrealistic. That’s when you need to pay attention to T for timely, look into case studies and understand how long it will realistically take you to get to where you want to be. Most importantly, when you are working towards your goal, reward yourself for every box you tick instead of punishing yourself for every tiny mistake. Mistakes are just a part of our learning curve. Look at your goal from a place of joy and self-trust.”

Ela ended our talk with a story of how one conversation made her reimagine her path towards success: “I met a pilot once and he was telling me how the autopilot system works, and I was really surprised to learn that the system doesn’t just go from A to B, it actually goes off course a bit and then gets back on course, it’s set to make mistakes and then correct them, so it allows a certain degree of diversion. I really tried to implement that in my life: I try to enjoy the journey, but I also recognize that if I take a detour, it’s okay: I’ve seen something new. As long as I’m heading in the right direction, it’s all fine.”

Thanks to Ela Crain for sharing her wisdom with us! If you would like to learn more about Ela and her work, subscribe to her newsletter at elacrain.com or get in touch via email at hello[AT]elacrain.com and follow her on Twitter.