I’m going to make a wild guess: you care a lot about your work. If not your organization, then about the mission.
We wouldn’t be doing this work if we didn’t care. A lot.
That leads me to another guess: you tend toward perfectionism.
About 30% of people are perfectionists. That increases to close to 80% among gifted people.
Either way, that’s a significant number of people.
Some psychiatrists believe perfectionists can do well, so long as the impetus comes from within. Others have come to believe that dividing perfectionists into “adaptive” and “nonadaptive” doesn’t work. It may be useful situationally, but there’s always anxiety involved.
So many of us fall prey to perfectionism’s pull. The work is too important. Too many people depend on me. I’m only as good as my work, or my relationships or my children.
So you wear the badge with pride.
But if this is you, or someone you work with, pause a moment.
Perfectionism is dangerous.
- It’s personally dangerous
- It’s bad for your organization
- It’s bad for learning
1. Dangerous for you
Perfectionism is strongly correlated with mental health issues – especially anxiety and depression.
It may even be overlooked explanation for suicide.
To understand why, you have to dig into the reason for the perfectionism.
What causes perfectionism?
Perfectionism is often present when some combination of these factors exist:
- Rigid, high parental expectations
- Highly critical, shaming, or abusive parents
- Excessive praise for your achievements
- Low self-esteem or feeling inadequate
- Believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements
- Black-and-white thinking
- Efforts to feel in control
- Cultural expectations
So problems many of us deal with: high expectations, low self-esteem, wanting to feel in control. Sounds pretty much like the human condition in our western cultures to me.
What’s your value?
This is how it plays out in the office: “I won’t be seen as a valuable employee unless everything is perfect. Unless I work longer and harder than everyone. Unless I prove my worth every day.”
And we do it to ourselves daily! No wonder we’re stressed.
(I had a boss once who liked to walk around the office asking people “What have you done to justify your existence today?” Pretty sure it was meant to be funny. But when it comes from the boss, maybe not so funny.)
Perfectionism under cover
If you’re a perfectionist, you may feel compelled to cover your tracks when you are not perfect.
You spend time and energy feeling suspect, afraid your next move will expose you as a fraud.
That’s a lot of pressure. And a lot of anxiety!
2. Bad for the organization
When you must be perfect when every move is fraught with danger you risk paralysis.
Think about it: the appeal that isn’t perfect… so you’d rather spend more time playing with it than getting it out the door. Which is going to raise more money?
- An appeal that never mails is not a successful appeal.
- The grant that doesn’t make deadline doesn’t win.
- The major donors you don’t meet with aren’t likely to spontaneously send a large gift.
Being a perfect deer caught in the headlights is a good way to be killed.
3. The opposite of perfection isn’t failure – it’s learning.
Perfectionism can sometimes be “other-oriented”. That is, the perfectionist’s high standards must be met by other people. Have you worked with someone like that? Have you worked FOR someone like that? Or is this you?
You can imagine what that does to the workplace. If you cannot fail – you cannot succeed, either.
I know my most successful times as a fundraising staffer where when I felt free to experiment.
Yes, I had to defend the ideas – which means they had to be well considered. But then I got the green light.
Not every idea worked. That’s to be expected, and it’s ok.
Organizations that don’t encourage smart failure don’t grow and succeed. You know the saying: “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.” The saying is wrong.
In fundraising, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get at best 60% of what you always got.
Donor attrition is real. Boredom is always a factor. With fundraising, you’re growing and learning or you’re dying.
So learning is not just good, but necessary. And you can’t try without failing – maybe even more than succeeding.
That’s good as long as you learn from it. Even better if you share what you learn. Then everyone benefits.
So how do you learn?
If your organization doesn’t have enough donors to run the direct response tests you often read about, you can still learn.
Read studies. Learn from the big guys. Consider the implications and how they might apply to your situation.
Then try something. Not without thought. Not without planning. But try.
You will learn something. If your response is significantly better or worse, that’s something. If it’s about the same, that’s something, too.
And with smaller numbers of donors, you can also ask your donors. Try a survey. Call some of your donors.
(Fundraising is always a conversation – whether in person, through the mail or online. Learn to listen as much as talk.)
Managing for success in a perfectionist’s world
You need an environment where smart tries are applauded, not punished.
So if you’re an executive director, or a development director managing a staff, keep learning in mind.
You’ll also find it creates more enthusiastic, committed employees. No one wants to work in fear. Everyone wants to use their minds and creativity. Let them. Urge them to, in fact. And model your own learning –
No one wants to work in fear. Everyone wants to use their minds and creativity. Let them. Urge them to, in fact.
Model your own learning – share your successes and failures.
Managing your perfectionist tendencies
Beth Kanter had a terrific article a few years back about the fine art of “satisficing”.
In the article, she explored what she learned from a conversation with Eric Lies about applying startup principles to nonprofits. She addressed the idea of failing fast. “Learning how to design effective fast experiments is something that we also have to iterate on.”
Beth references some suggestions from another article, Satisficing: How Overachievers Stay Sane and Avoid Burn-Out.
1. Accept you won’t get everything done
2. Keep a new ideas journal and don’t feel like a failure if you don’t implement everything
3. Prioritize your well-being
4. Ship early, then iterate
So give yourself a break – and keep reminding yourself everything won’t happen, at least now. I know a designer who used to say “sometimes, done is better than perfect”. Yes, it was funny. But it was also true – especially when people were waiting for her work. The bottom line is that she is talented enough that her “done” was very good. And really, what’s the difference between very good and perfect?
I especially like the last suggestion, because it ties into the idea of learning. Beth says we need to learn how to learn faster. Keep trying, get better at designing tests (I’m going to try this… why, exactly? And how will I know it’s succeeded?)
I would add to all of this: cultivate good people whose opinion you trust. When you stress about “perfect”, let them tell you “done”.
Can you let good be good enough?
In the satisficing article, the author, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, leaves us with this thought:
Consistently sacrificing your health, your well-being, your relationships, and your sanity for the sake of living up to impossible standards will lead to some dangerous behaviors and, ironically, a great deal of procrastination.
Give yourself permission to grow. You don’t have to be perfect to be good.
P.S. Of course, I’ve been working on this for a few weeks now. Every re-read says, “not good enough”. So I will admit to the struggle myself!
Photo: Khai Sze Ong