By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Hello, my name is Peter and I’m…a perfectionist. Yes, I can now openly admit it, I am a perfectionist. I have amassed decades of experience fine-tuning my craft and learning more about it. Perfection, has many advantages but it has a dark side, too. Over the years, I have learned how to tap into and celebrate the many strengths and benefits of pursuing excellence. At the same time, I have endeavored to guard against it’s limiting, self-defeating, and even paralyzing facets. As such, I consider myself to be an informed perfectionist, more to the point I am a recovering perfectionist.
[Star Trek fans may be anticipating an enlightened discourse on Seven of Nine’s unremitting pursuit of Borg-style perfection. Alas, this is not the case. If you are disappointed, I recommend watching, “The Omega Directive” (StarTrek Voyager, season 4, episode 19) and then consider the cost of perfection.]
In my early days at the helm of this magazine, I lamented to it’s founder and prior owner, Steve Michaels, about my frustration that I was yet to produce an error-free issue. He laughed at my angst, informing me that out of the 50 issues he had produced, there was only one, or perhaps two, in which an error was never discovered. He helped me to realize that it is worthy to pursue quality, but that publication perfection would be largely unobtainable. In fact, I soon learned to take reasonable measures that everything was correct and then be content with the results. My track record for error-free results is closely matching Steve’s and I’m okay with that – for the most part.
Doing research on perfectionism reveals a host of ominous and debilitating traits: starting with compulsiveness and going downhill from there, but I won’t delve into them in this article. After all, I am a recovering perfectionist and they don’t pertain to me any more! As a recovering perfectionist, I can tap into my natural tendencies when I need to, that is, when it is to my advantage to do so, but can usually avoid being handicapped by perfection’s unrelenting snares. As a perfectionist, there are several traits in which I relish:
- Produce quality work: perfectionists tend to produce high quality work. I take pleasure in excellence and find satisfaction in a job well-done, more to the point, done to near perfection or at least better than anyone else.
- Exceed expectations: if the boss expects a handwritten report, the perfectionist will type it; if achieving a 99% rating is admirable, the purist will aim for 99.9 – and then 100! Being above average is not good enough; being the best is a self-imposed requirement. In sports, this results in shooting free throws while the rest of the team showers or taking 30 minutes of extra batting practice – every day.
- Go the extra mile: perfectionists often go the extra mile. If a report needs to be five pages long, they will turn in six; if a product needs to have three new features, they will add a fourth and maybe a fifth. If they set a record last month, they will strive to better it this month.
- Set high standards: another trait is that perfectionists set high standards, both for themselves, as well as others. As long as the standards are reasonably attainable, it is acceptable, and even admirable, for the perfectionist to set the bar high – for him or herself. But foisting faultlessness on the others does little more than establish the groundwork for future frustration, disappointment, and conflict between the precision-minded and the rest of the world.
Of course, there are counterparts to these traits. One, which I still struggle with, is procrastination. This column is a case in point; it is the last item being written for this issue! I understand that the perfectionist subconsciously reasons that the results of their work will never be just right – no mater how much time is invested – so why start? In fact, the project is often delayed until the last possible moment, so that at least there is a plausible excuse as to why it’s not perfect: “I didn’t have much time to work on it!” Taking this to an extreme, some perfectionists miss deadlines and blow past due dates — often stressing about or agonizing over some trivial or irrelevant detail. Fortunately, I rarely take my proclivity for fastidiousness past a deadline.
Another side-effect of perfectionism that I have yet to completely master, is making quick decisions. Most of the time, I can analyze the facts that are available and known, consider the risks, and make a speedy proclamation. Some times, I need to “sleep on it” to be assured of the correctness of my judgment. Occasionally, however, decisions can be agonizingly difficult for me to reach. This, most likely, is because I fear making the wrong conclusion, that is, a less than perfect one. The urge is to delay a pronouncement, while awaiting more information, so that a proper and informed analysis can be considered. Unfortunately, this mental paralysis is seldom cured by amassing more data. Though it is possible for me to logically reason myself out of this conundrum and move forward, more likely than not, a hard deadline approaches, and realizing that not deciding is the same as deciding no, I render a verdict – hoping that it is correct.
Happily, being self-aware of these tendencies is the first step toward avoidance, allowing me to confidently and gladly call myself a recovering perfectionist. Over the years, I have often interviewed other perfectionists, particularly during job interviews. As it becomes more and more apparent that I am talking to one of my own kind, I segue into a special interview segment, just for them. “So,” I inquire, “Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist?” Their responses fall into one of three categories. The first one is shock or denial. If a person who has just professed several perfectionist traits is taken aback at the thought of being called one or disavows any connection whatsoever, I judge them to either be disingenuous or not too self-aware. Neither are characteristics that I seek in an employee.
The second type of response to my perfectionist query, is unabashed pride and total satisfaction in possessing this quality. To make sure I am not rushing to a snap judgment, I give them one last chance for redemption. “What,” I ask, “do you see as the weaknesses of being a perfectionist?” Occasionally, they will comprehend the importance of that question, using an astute answer to move them from this category over to category three. Usually, however, they give me a blank stare, as if my inquiry was nonsensical, responding that there is no downside or that they don’t understand what I am asking. In similar fashion, I don’t want to work with a perfectionist that has failed to realize the turmoil and trouble they can produce by their ignorance in this matter.
The third type of perfectionist applicant smiles at this question and begins to share their self-awareness about the limitations of how their version of perfectionism is manifested. They openly identify the less then admirable ways that it reveals itself in them and often proceed to communicate how they guard themselves and others from this tendency. This is a person I want on my team. Yes, they may take a bit more management effort from time to time, but doing so is worth the extra energy as the results will be an employee who produces quality work, frequently exceeds expectations, goes the extra mile, and sets high standards for themselves. Isn’t that who you want working in your call center, too?
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From Connection Magazine – April 2005]