Why Your Perfectionism Is Killing Your Career and What To Do About It

Dear Millennials: Your perfectionism is harming your health and killing your career.

A recent study published in Psychological Bulletin found that millennials are more prone to perfectionism than previous generations, and linked the increase to a rise in serious mental health consequences, including eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.

Millennials are not only harder on themselves. They’re also feeling increased social pressure and holding others to an impossibly high standard.

Combined with the fact that they likely hate their job (roughly 70% of people do), it’s easy to see why so many millennials are exhausted, anxious, and dubious they’ll find career happiness.

 

You Think You’re Just Being Conscientious

The challenge is that many millennial women experienced early career success despite perfectionist tendencies. That extra attention to detail and obsession with getting it right helped you stand out and rise up the ranks in the first place.

But as your oversight expands and your work slate grows, the overwhelm deepens. There’s no room for error. Everything is a priority and nothing can drop. You don’t have enough time to get everything done to the level you want, yet you fear what others will think if you pull back. No one can do it as well as you, so you might as well do it yourself. Sound familiar?

Unlike conscientiousness (doing something well), perfectionism (doing it flawlessly) is neither scalable nor sustainable.

So what are we going to do about it?

The study raises the obvious influence of social media and helicopter parenting. But rather than focus on tactical solutions in the modern western world, I suggest we adopt a strategy rooted in ancient eastern ideals.

Enter Wabi-sabi.

 

Wabi-sabi Defined

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy which values imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness. It's about nature, simplicity, beauty, growth, and decay.

Wabi sees the quirks and anomalies arising from the process of creation as unique and elegant. Imperfections make things more interesting, and thus more valuable.  

Sabi recognizes the beauty and serenity that emerges over time. The wear and tear of daily life makes it more beautiful. 

A wabi-sabi career celebrates the wisdom gained on the journey and the beauty of the winding road you take to get there. It’s rooted in experience, growth, and continuous evolution. It breeds confidence because there are no mistakes, only steps forward. Wabi-sabi is the antidote to perfectionism.

 

Why Your Perfectionism Is Holding You Back

Friendly reminder that perfectionism is striving for an unattainable ideal, then punishing yourself for not reaching said unattainable ideal.

As Einstein once said, “That’s messed up.” 

But if you’re like most perfectionist high achievers, you don’t like not being good at things. It’s uncomfortable because you’re used to succeeding.

So rather than taking a swing and missing, you stay in a job that doesn’t serve you.

You don’t start that passion project because your friends might see you falter.

You talk yourself out of that leap because you want everything to line up first.

You don’t ask for help because you don’t want it to reflect poorly on you.

You aim to perfect everything rather than focus on the ONE significant effort that will make a real impact on your organization.

You stay stuck because you don’t want to make the wrong move . . . or can't envision the "right" one.

Career perfection implies that there's a single, correct path surrounded by an ocean of hot lava. No wonder you're stuck.

 

There Are No Mistakes When You’re Moving Towards Your Goal

What if you focused on the process, where you viewed each step not as an opportunity to be right or wrong but to get closer to the career you want?

As wabi-sabi teaches us, that step might be imperfect, but it's also impermanent. Move forward, pivot, change—each time building toward something even better. 

What sounds better: a messy step forward or pristine career stagnation?

 Imperfect action is better than perfect stagnation.

Imperfect action is better than perfect stagnation.

The path to a fulfilling career is filled with cracks. That’s where you find the gold. 

Mine your mistakes and failures for the invaluable lessons learned, paths revealed, and all-important ego checks.

It's the experiences that are most uncomfortable and challenging that we learn the most about ourselves: what we're great at and what's most important to us.

Sometimes the things that we're truly great at are beneath the surface, hidden in one of those cracks. But you won't know unless you start down the path.

 

Perfectionism Stamps Out Discovery and Continuous Improvement

Imagine if Alexander Fleming had gotten to work on September 28, 1928, and beat himself up for leaving the Petri dish uncovered.

What if he spiraled into a vortex of negative self-talk, ruminated about his contemporaries’ criticisms, and gave up out of fear he’d never succeed?

Instead, he discovered penicillin, won the Nobel Prize, and revolutionized medicine.

An imperfect experiment led to a life-changing discovery.

Except so often when we make mistakes (usually as minor as a petri dish), we assign blame, make it portend something ominous, or give up.

Mr. Fleming knew he had to experiment. But when we’re making career moves, we try to jump straight to the Nobel prize. And get frustrated when it doesn’t happen. Or talk ourselves out of it before we've even begun.

Treat your career as a grand experiment that will lead to discoveries about what you want and what makes you happy.

 

Why Is Perfectionism Such a Bad Goal? Because You Can’t Eat Elephants

A few years ago, I was talking to a former colleague. I was at a low point at work, and likely fishing for compliments, when I steered the conversation towards her assessment of my leadership capability.

She quickly pronounced my greatest leadership quality as, “You’re quirky.”

Quirky? Quirky! Quirky.

I felt like I had failed. The image I wanted to project was of a strong, capable leader, not a goofball stumbling my way through it.

I had an image of the ideal leader, and quirky wasn’t it.

Yet my friend’s sincerity forced me to accept it.

It is, after all, who I am. It’s how I come at topics from a completely different angle, like the test in grade school where I explained that an elephant could not be grouped with a pig, cow, and chicken, “Because you can’t eat elephants.” (I stand by this answer, but apparently the correct response is that an elephant is a circus animal and the rest are farm animals. I’m from the Midwest. We like meat.)

By seeing myself through my friend's eyes as a uniquely-flawed human, I stopped trying to fix everything and control every outcome. I started injecting more quirkiness to add levity and build rapport. I asked more questions and admitted more often not knowing the answers. I let crap go because it was never going to be perfect, I couldn't be all things to all people, and I’d rather spend my time on other things. 

In short, I became a better leader because I shifted from aspiring to be a perfect leader to being perfectly myself.

Eventually, I realized I wanted to work in an environment where I didn’t feel like I had to be a different person once I walked into the office. Not only had I been trying to live up to a false ideal, I didn’t even like the ideal I was chasing.

 

Exercise:

  • What ideals are you trying to live up to?

  • Where do these ideals come from?

  • How do they align with your organization’s goals? Your career and life goals?

 

Don’t just embrace your quirk, find its beauty. Be perfectly you.

Mr. Fleming was apparently a total slob. I’d say it worked in his favor. Which of your flaws are strengths in disguise?

 

Trade Perfectionism For Peace

If there’s one thing I want you to take away, it’s that creating a life and career you love doesn’t need to be so hard. That’s not to say that designing a career with purpose doesn’t take hard work, but it’s totally doable.

Perfection is totally NOT doable. It breeds fear and anxiety and can never be achieved. 

Wabi-sabi your career instead. Embrace your fallibility and accept help from others. Show your vulnerability and build strong relationships. Take calculated risks, so you can fail, so you can have amazing stories that inspire, entertain, and help others.

Above all, get out of your head and take steps towards what you want. Big or small, move forward imperfectly. 

Master the art of ongoing, unfinished imperfection: design, build, tweak, repeat.

Like the idea of Career Wabi-sabi? Check out this podcast to learn why you might not even know that perfectionism is holding you back, and pick up 6 ways to work through those sneaky perfectionist tendencies.


I'd love to know your thoughts about wabi-sabi and perfectionism. Let me know below how you plan to wabi-sabi your career.

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Author Bio: 

Before becoming a coach, Caroline spent 20 years in management consulting and financial services. She's made it her mission to help people grow, contribute, and get wherever they want to go.

Caroline wants women to recognize how much power they truly have to define their careers. The life and career you want really is possible once you have the roadmap. Take the first step by downloading her free guide.

She’s also a tennis fanatic, aspiring Minimalist, FIRE (Financial Independence and Retire Early) enthusiast, and Aloha Spirit seeker 🤙. She loves to share stories from her unconventional life and career focused on freedom, creativity, fun, health, family, and community. If she can do it, you can, too.