In my experience, perfectionism is an unhelpful personality trait I wish I didn’t have. For me the impulse to do anything perfectly is at best distracting, and at worse, keeps me from starting some things at all. And I know this isn’t only a challenge for me. But I’ve found one situation where this impulse is helpful. I think of it as useful perfectionism.
The problem in practice
My own perfectionist behavior for example, impacted my efforts to learn how to ski. My first opportunity to go skiing came as an adult. And unlike those little kids you see zipping along at the mountain, trying to learn to ski as an adult is a lot harder. Why is this? Because, adults try to be perfect. I wanted to do it like I saw it done. I expected to learn how to ski – here’s the funny part – without falling. Of course this is ridiculous but that wasn’t the thought in my mind. Now the little kids I saw at the learning center were falling all over the place. And everyone expected that. Eventually, after some crying and such, the progress part happens and the skill is learned. But for adults, the failure part can put an end to the entire endeavor. Thankfully, I didn’t give up that easily. But it wasn’t until my fifth lesson attempt or so that I went with the mindset that I didn’t care how many times I fell down or who might see me do it. A funny thing happened. Because I wasn’t trying to be perfect, I began to develop the body feel necessary for learning. I’m certain I never would’ve learned if I had kept trying not to mess up.
Making perfection useful
The times I’ve successfully used my perfectionist tendencies to accomplish things of value, I’ve found two things at play. First, there’s an awareness that one of the few situations I’ve mentioned has come around. Second, the situation must serve our further progress. Both are required.
To preserve opportunity
Chasing perfection causes one to chase imagined, unattainable ends. But, if the tendency toward imagining perfect ends helps to avoid spending time unwisely it could represent something closer to a good. I’m mindful to not waste my time. In these instances, a perfectionist bias is helpful in saying no to something that really isn’t right for me or for where I’m at in that moment. As small business owners, we’re constantly faced with the need to optimize our time. What if perfectionism could actually help us to see our way to saying no. This would free up time to pursue something more suitable. A better opportunity maybe? In this way the imagined perfect pushes the decision making bar higher. Used effectively, this is an opportunity to deploy more strategic thinking that considers opportunity cost.
In service to progress
Perfectionism can be made useful if it’s in service to your bigger picture for what or who you you’re working to become. Claiming opportunity cost without knowing what the opportunity represents is hollow. It’s too easy to mistake the same old non-productive perfectionist behavior as something useful. But preserving time to spend time on something more productive? That’s being strategic. This requires intentionality that’s missing from ordinary, unhelpful perfectionism.
So, being a perfectionist isn’t all bad. Just mostly. When life gives you lemons and all…You get the point.