Perfectionism Is a Disease. Here's How to Beat It.

Last Updated Oct 14, 2010 11:09 PM EDT

It's amazing that people admit to being perfectionists. To me, it's a disorder, not unlike obsessive-compulsive disorder. And like obsessive-compulsive disorder, perfectionism messes you up. It also messes up the people around you, because perfectionists lose perspective as they get more and more mired in details.


We can never achieve perfection -- any of us. Yet so many people keep trying to reach this elusive goal and they drive themselves crazy in the process. So cut it out. Accept that it's okay to do a mediocre job on a certain percentage of your work. If you need convincing, consider this: Perfectionism is a risk factor for depression. No kidding. Sydney Blatt, psychologist at Yale University, finds that perfectionists are more likely to kill themselves than regular, mediocre-performing people.

Here are three steps to take to avoid the perfectionism trap:

1. Allow yourself to be wrong in front of others.
Try having an opinion that is wrong. Tell a story that is stupid. Wear clothes that don't match. Turn in a project that you can't fully explain. People will not think you're stupid. People will think you spent your time and energy doing something else -- something that meant more to you.

We all have many competing demands. We do not presume to know other people's demands. But we are all sure of one thing: Our work is often not the most important thing on our plate.

Also, you'll notice that people are not particularly vested in you being right. They don't care if you're right or wrong in what you do or say. They just want you to get stuff done well enough that they can do what they need to do. And this is usually a far cry from perfection.

The other huge problem with perfectionism is that people stop learning when they're constantly afraid of being wrong. We learn by making mistakes. The only way we understand ourselves is to test our limits. If we don't want anyone to know we make mistakes, which is how perfectionists tend to behave, we are actually hiding our true selves.

2. Be a hard worker rather than a perfectionist.
You can be a hard-working person and cut corners. In fact, it's often a requirement: Smart people cut corners. The art of being a star performer is knowing which corners to cut. Focus on your goals, and be honest with yourself about whether your goals require perfectionism along the way. A lot of times perfectionism is a way to avoid focusing on goals. Real goals, after all, almost always require a little bit of luck and assistance along the way -- factors the perfectionists tend to dismiss.

3. Spend your energy making yourself likable.
Tiziana Casciaro reports in the Harvard Business Review that people are not all that interested in you being super-good at your job. They care if they like you. And, Casciaro found that if someone does not like you, he or she will decide you're incompetent whether you are or not. Sad, yes, but the converse is true as well. You can do a poor job and no one will notice if they like you. And, newsflash: In many instances, this is good for business -- teams do better work when everyone on the team likes everyone else. So don't worry about doing a perfect job. Do a decent job, but leave yourself enough time to manage your relationships at work. Take lunch. Participate in office politics, because office politics is really about being nice -- which, frankly, is more healthy and certainly more achievable than being perfect.

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