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Why It Doesn't Pay to Be a Perfectionist

Bob Sullivan

Do you dwell on small mistakes for hours, days or even weeks after they occur? Are you crushed when someone points out a small flaw in your work? Have you ever spent four hours fine-tuning a task that could have been completed in 10 minutes? Are you haunted by uncertainty when you finish a task, so nothing ever feels finished? Do the words “good enough” make you cringe?

Then you’re likely engaging in a form of self-torture that many psychologists now recognize as a modern-day epidemic – part obsessive-compulsive disorder, part overbearing superego, part digital-age narcissistic nightmare, and nearly always on the edge of miserable. You are a slave of success but focused on failure.  You are a perfectionist.

In the Plateau Effect strategy, Perfectionism is the eighth and final reason that people get stuck in life, but it might be the most pernicious.  After all, isn’t being perfect a good thing?  Scoring 100% on a test is better than scoring 97%, right?  In school, maybe. In life, absolutely not.

As writers Kitty Kay and Claire Shipman say in their new book, The Confidence Gap, perfectionism is a particularly vexing problem for women.  In the world of Facebook comments, Twitter and 1,000 selfies, the need to appear perfect at all times is enough to drive anyone crazy, and women certainly suffer more than their share of that burden.

Perfectionism causes self-doubt, a key element in risk aversion. It’s used as an excuse for procrastination. It prevents beginnings. It shelters incompetence. It causes decision quicksand.  Let’s discuss all those things and how they impact your financial situation. But first, let’s talk about what a perfectionist is, and find out if you fit the bill.

Gorden Flett, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto and probably the world’s leading expert on perfectionism, claims more than 50% of today’s Western school-aged children exhibit perfectionist tendencies. And most high-achiever women suffer from some form of it.

“We know the immediate and widespread reaction that follows when a major celebrity does something wrong. So … people can see the price that is paid for making mistakes in public,” Flett says. He offers this quick list of tipoffs you might be a perfectionist:

Flett’s 10 signs your a perfectionist*

  1. You can’t stop thinking about a mistake you made.
  2. You are intensely competitive and can’t stand doing worse than others.
  3. You either want to do something “just right” or not at all.
  4. You demand perfection from other people.
  5. You won’t ask for help if asking can be perceived as a flaw or weakness.
  6. You will persist at a task long after other people have quit.
  7. You are a fault-finder who must correct other people when they are wrong.
  8. You are highly aware of other people’s demands and expectations.
  9. You are very self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people.
  10. You noticed the error in the title of this list.

The Trouble With Perfectionism

Life is a series of steps, missteps and corrections, but perfectionists stink at this process. They avoid all situations where anything but positive feedback might arise. They are blind to their blind spots.

Perfectionists lead rigid lives; they avoid tasks that might expose any inadequacies. Life in this mistake-free cocoon eventually turns into an echo chamber, where sufferers never try anything new, never get any critical feedback, and never receive the new information needed to break through places in their lives they are stuck. Many perfectionists end up ferociously concealing their mistakes, the way a bulimic conceals trips to the bathroom – a tactic that ends the critical life feedback loop altogether.

Here’s how being a perfectionist hurts your bottom line.

Perfectionists don’t learn from mistakes, so they are bad at admitting them.  That means they don’t sell stocks that are losers.  They refuse to sell houses at a loss, even when that makes the most sense. They don’t re-balance portfolios. In extreme forms, they are afraid to get messy and handle financial affairs themselves, so they abdicate all thoughts of money to a financial adviser. Perfectionist parents don’t let their kids handle any of their financial affairs – student loan applications, car purchases, even job interviews! — long after they become adults. That means their kids don’t get to make mistakes, don’t learn from mistakes, and become helpless as adults when they have to manage their own money. It’s better that your child screw up a used car sale at 19, and learn from it, than screw up a home purchase at 32. Making money mistakes is an absolutely critical part of being a smart consumer.

Perfectionists fail to get started on things, which is why perfectionism and procrastination often go hand-in-hand. A friend we’ll call Peggy is like many of your friends, no doubt. She hates her job, has long since outclassed her boss, but feels her skills – and her life – wasting away.  She has a great idea for a small business, and she’s spent years researching her product. She’s even earned an MBA, partly so she feels qualified to launch her business.  If only she could get that website finished.  She paid the 20-something programmer from work months ago to do it as a side job, but he keeps making excuses.  Sure, there’s a skeleton page up now, but it’s nowhere near good enough. The fonts are wrong; the art is ugly.  She’s requested the changes repeatedly, but her programmer friend never seems to prioritize the project. And so Peggy’s idea sits, and waits. And waits. It’s a refrain you hear all the time – can’t take that new job until I get a new wardrobe; can’t go back to school until I get a new boss; can’t write that novel until I finished remodeling the study. After all, who can write a novel in a study with orange walls! In fact, wall paint colors have probably been the death of great novels, new businesses, exercise programs, and all manner of personal growth projects all around the planet.

Perfectionists suffer from decision quicksand. Have you ever stood frozen in the toiletry aisle of the grocery store, paralyzed by deciding what brand of toothpaste to buy? So has everyone else. There’s a very good reason for this. Deciding which toothpaste to buy is hard. Very hard! You barely know the truth about fluoride and whitening agents, let alone how to pick between a paste and a gel. Then there’s the size consideration – is larger really cheaper? The math alone would stump most calculus students. And will this large tube even fit on your bathroom sink? What about those tubes that stand upright, are they better?  Argh!!!! Many life decisions follow this same route. Need to buy toilet paper? There’s 50 choices. Need a toothbrush? There’s 100 choices. Need a hotel room in Manhattan? Expedia offers 542 choices. Need a flight from San Francisco to Chicago?  There’s nearly infinite possibilities, if connecting flights are included. Life in the 21st Century offers nearly boundless options for everything… and we humans hate it, perfectionists most of all.

In a groundbreaking study on this uniquely modern malady called “Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In,” marketing professors Aner Sela and Jonah Berger offer a good explanation of why otherwise capable adults seem overwhelmed by the tiniest of choices. They say that humans frequently confuse hard with important. Something deep inside us is triggered the second that a decision seems hard – psychologically, we begin to outsize the importance of the choice. In fact, it’s likely you spent more time on paint color for your bathroom than you spent picking mutual funds in your 401(k). Many times, making the perfect choice isn’t nearly as important as making a choice. Sure, there are dozens of index funds to choose from, and some might have slightly lower fees. But you know what’s worse than paying an extra 0.02% a year in fees?  Not saving anything in your retirement fund this year.

Perfectionism can be used to conceal a lack of competence, such as an ineffective marketing manager who spends all day copy editing a one-page press release in an effort to avoid placing phone calls needed to pitch the company’s news. Phone calls involve failure, while copy editing a press release is safe. Being the grammar expert at an office also feels good. But does it really improve the product? If you are a news website, sure. If you are a tech startup, probably not. Perfectionists are often those employees who bog down every meeting with questions about items that are not “material.”

Perfectionists don’t take risks. Perfectionists focus on one point in time – the end. Graduation. Wedding Day.  The perfectly clean house. They can’t imagine starting something without being absolutely sure what the outcome will be. They aren’t good at cracking eggs to make an omelet. Not all risks are worthy, of course, but some are. Naturally, risks like starting a business, quitting a miserable job or investing in something often result in painful missteps. Perfectionists live their lives trying to avoid such pain, but no one changed an unhappy situation without taking a risk.

What Should Someone With Perfectionist Tendencies Do?

There are many methods people like Flett use to encourage perfectionists to come out of their shell. One is very simple: Just get started. Don’t wait until you know everything about doing a bathroom remodel. Just begin at step one. Just rip the toilet out of the floor. Yes, you can figure out step two later.

But one useful example, and metaphor, comes at the intersection of housekeeping and perfectionism. Witness the rise of the ragingly popular FlyLady, an online character who acts as cheerleader for Web users who feel overwhelmed by housework. The main philosophy behind her site: most homes are cluttered and dirty, ironically, because their occupants insist on perfectly clean rooms. When 100% cleanliness proves to be impossible, an endless task of keeping up with dirt, the housekeeper despairs and simply gives up. Why wash the living room rug if the kids are just going to track in mud after the next rain anyway? This silent despair overwhelms millions of families, often making their homes nearly unlivable. In an incredible irony, many of the subjects of TV shows like Hoarders could be described as perfectionists. The solution, says FlyLady, is a new way of thinking.

“You’re not behind. Just jump in wherever you are,” she says, over and over. Her favorite kick-start: No matter what the condition of your home, your bathroom, or your kitchen, go “shine” the kitchen sink. Make it the one sanctuary, the one cleanliness victory, in your house.

The quick-start “shine” method works in any aspect of life. Overwhelmed by the prospect of getting a new job? Spend 15 minutes today updating your resume, or filling out job applications, or researching grad school, and then stop. Don’t know how to start saving for retirement? Open an IRA right now and put $1,000 in, or even $500. Better yet, set up automatic payments to the account.mNext week, think about where to invest the money.

Overwhelmed by debt?  Make a plan to pay one bill today.  Then gradually address each issue that could be hurting your financial situation and your credit. (You can come up with a plan to do that using free tools on Credit.com.) But today, right now, go “shine” your financial kitchen sink. Don’t worry about the ending, or how it looks, or what someone might think if they knew what you were doing. Just get started. That’s the perfect first step.

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