Perfection is the Enemy of Progress
Lessons from Leonardo, goal setting Warren Buffet style and a rollercoaster
Many of the high-achieving leaders I work with have a perfectionist streak. Striving for perfection helps them move forward, fast; they set high goals for themselves and are constantly striving to achieve more.
Perfectionism is a double-edged sword.
When starting something new, it can slow down your pace, stop you from moving forward, and mean that you’re constantly questioning whether what you’re doing is ‘good enough’, always judging yourself on your last big success.
This is what perfectionism might look like in diagram form:
Perfectionism is an illusion. Not least because on a personal level the search is for ‘your’ version of perfection; and with every human being entirely unique, ‘perfection’ for you, will be imperfect to others. It is a losers game and ‘perfection’ is the only winner.
When leaders set out to do something new, it is exactly that; new. And the pressure that perfectionist leaders put on themselves belies the learning and mistakes that are needed to make real progress.
The irony is that most leaders really do want businesses in which people learn and grow.
Yet when the learning is personal and comes the hard way it can make even the best leader question themselves.
So if you too have a perfectionist streak, how do you embrace your limitations, learn and lead well?
Here are five things to help get you started.
Appreciate the rollercoaster: Starting something new doesn’t just test your skillset, it tests your psychological resilience too.
This model is a rather accurate reflection of what you experience when you step onto the rollercoaster of starting something new:
The challenge is that high achievers often expect themselves to move directly from the top left to the top right. And when this doesn’t happen, they judge themselves harder and beat themselves up even more (see the Perfectionist Cycle above).
Where are you on the rollercoaster ride right now?
What pressure do you put on yourself to speed through it?
What one thing can you do to appreciate the value of the ride more?
Learning list: Leonardo Da Vinci was the Renaissance career changer. Constantly evolving, he thrived as a painter, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor and architect. One tool that helped him? He kept a to-learn list. Not a to do list or list of goals, but things he wanted to learn.
He came to his work from a position of learning, rather than perfection.
What three things do you want to learn about leadership this year?
Which will you do first?
What will be your first step?
Read: If you struggle with perfectionism, Rebecca Knight shares advice from the experts on how to keep your perfectionist tendencies at bay in her piece ‘How to Manage Your Perfectionism’.
Focus: There’s a great story told by James Clear about Warren Buffet walking his personal pilot through a three-step process of big goal setting.
High achievers who set their personal bar high (Buffet’s pilot had flown multiple Presidents prior to piloting Buffet) often need help focussing in on what’s really important.
There’s a well-accepted sentiment that leaders often overestimate what can be achieved in a year, and underestimate what can be achieved in a decade.
Strategically planning what you want to achieve will help you hone in on the areas of most value, and do them well; rather than trying to spread yourself too thin and failing.
What’s on your A list?
And what’s on your Avoid At All Costs list?
Question: It is rare for busy leaders (and particularly those with self critical tendencies) to pause and appreciate on how far they have come. Take a moment and reflect on this:
What are you doing today that you couldn’t do a year ago?
Thanks for reading this. If you found it thought provoking I’d love it if you’d share it with someone you know.
Being a high achiever in industry myself, I have long suffered from the ills of perfectionism and unrealistic goals. It really is a double-edged sword. It has contributed to a lot of my success, but at a cost - sleepless nights and unnecessary stress.
I personally follow the learning list model as well, to keep my spirits up in times when I lack results. It helps me immensely.
Thank you Rebecca for sharing this :)
Nice - "Appreciate the rollercoaster". I enjoyed the virtual meeting today, and your newsletter. Stay in touch!