When Perfection Becomes An Excuse To Stay Where We Are
The world of coaching is essentially the world of human behaviour. Every coach is first a sounding board and only then a guide or catalyst or mirror. However, one thing is common to all coaching engagements- a coachee’s desire to grow.
This is precisely why we have a lot of respect for anyone who signs up for a coaching engagement- these are people with years, often decades, of experience willing to spend the time and energy needed to go further in their chosen path or have the courage to take pause and question the path. It takes an immense amount of self-awareness to show up to work with a coach.
This is also why coaching can often feel like an uphill climb.
Much like physical exercise, forming new patterns of thinking and doing takes time, effort and consistency. The most common hurdle a coachee faces on the path is what we like to call the hurdle of perfection.
Haven’t we all heard someone say this?
“The reason why I don’t do (x) is because I’m a perfectionist.”
I don’t hire a senior manager because they just won’t be able to do things the way I do.
I don’t want to sign up for this new project because I like to do well in all that I do, and this project challenges my way of doing things.
In saying these things, we often tend to use perfectionism as a cover for other fears and biases. And as every good coach must, we always asks the question, “What if you didn’t have to be perfect?”
This question, and its ramifications, upend existing thought patterns in significant ways, often to the point where several sessions are spent reordering these thoughts into more beneficial patterns. For example, someone who does not hire a team, or delegate work, because they like it done perfectly are actually using perfection as an excuse to hide away deeper fears and personality elements- maybe they have always believed that they are not good with people, or perhaps they have always had experiences that reinforced their belief in being the lone wolf.
And this is where the work begins- in understanding that a team may not always do things our way, but they will certainly do things in ways that are productive and contribute to the larger goal.
The other example of perfectionism we often see, either in ourselves or in others, is the inability to execute. Several people have great ideas, but the successful ones know how to bring these ideas to life. Indeed, going from thinking to execution is a daunting task, and perfectionism often comes to our rescue. We wait for the idea to be perfect before we act on it. We revise drafts endlessly as opposed to just publishing it. We hang on to our social media calendars without putting a word out there, and therefore failing even before we have had a chance to begin.
Again, in this case, perfection is only serving as a guise to hide a deeper pattern- not wanting to be criticised, not being a very social person, not believing our ideas are good enough, and so on.
All Good Things Begin At 60%
The people we know and recognise as being successful today all started at less-than-desirable goalposts. The example of Olympic Gold Medalist Neeraj Chopra comes to mind here. Today, we recognise him as a global icon, a pioneer of his craft. But even before he won the Olympic gold, he put in the work needed to train and succeed at the international level. Several district, state, and national level accolades, and even more failures, have preceded this particular medal.
The bottom line is this- even Neeraj Chopra spent over a decade harnessing what is now being touted as his natural ability. No doubt he spent many days throwing poorly or stuck at the same distance. But athletes turn up every day, hoping to be one millimetre better or one millisecond faster. So why should we expect that we will be a hundred percent good at what we do on day one?
Often, when we use perfectionism as an excuse to not change, we are hiding certain behavioural attributes that have shaped us for very long. For example,
-I don't take up projects where there is a chance of failure.
-I don't delegate or offer feedback because I want perfection at all times.
-I'm very busy and don't have time because I'm a perfectionist.
So, the real question is, are we ready to begin by being 60% good at giving feedback? Are we prepared to take a 40% chance of abject failure? Are we willing to free up half our time to do things a little more mindfully, and truly consider why we’re so busy all the time?
When is perfectionism your friend?
The essence of wanting to be perfect is the idea that I can do better next attempt. The key is not 'better' but 'next attempt.' You have to show up and do the work so that you give yourself a chance to be better.
Think about behaviours that you attribute to perfectionism. If it were true perfectionism, meaning you want to perfect the art (or science), then you would keep repeating it so that the needle moves. If you are at 60%, then after some time, are you at 65%? Then the perfectionism is your friend. You are showing up, doing the work, and getting better, as you aim for 100% aka perfect. If you have been at 60% for a long time and avoid the work, then there is no real aim for perfection. It's just a very convenient excuse.
Progress over perfect. Try it and let us know how it goes. A small change or a big difference?
If you didn’t have to be perfect today, what would you choose to do?