OK, yes, I am a recovering perfectionist. And I am in a constant struggle with myself to balance watching out for details, which I think is important, and sliding into perfectionism, which I think is destructive.
Having a typo slide through the proofreader’s eyes happens. Not just to me, to everyone. I send out my work to a proofreader because I am a terrible proofer of my own work. When you teach writing, grammar and editing, and an error slides though, it’s painful. When a class participant finds it, you begin to think your life might end. At your own hand.
Before you shout “first world problem!” (and I live in the first world, so yeah, it’s my problem), there are some thoughts to consider on perfectionism.
- Be realistic. Mistakes will happen. To you, to me, to everyone. Success is not the norm. Not at first.
- Practice makes you better. Obsessive practice makes you a perfectionist. I practice writing almost every day of my life. But if I stopped sleeping so I could write more, it would not be good for my health.
- Do your best work. Let others do their best work. My best work will still have typos. My proofreader isn’t a great writer, but she is a great proofer. We all have jobs we are good at and jobs we aren’t good at. Half of being smart is knowing what you’re are dumb at and not doing it. The other half is doing more of what you are smart at.
I’m an idea person. I come up with good ideas and solve problems along the way. When I do find a typo in my own work (always in front of a full class, never before I ship the books), I turn it into a teaching experience. My behavior of admitting the mistake shows others that you can live after you admit a mistake.
One of my favorite stories (even if apocryphal) is about Tom Watson, Sr., the CEO of IBM in the 1950s. A VP had run a development project and made a mistake that cost the company about $10 million dollars. That’s a hefty sum even then, but in today’s dollars it would be well over $50,000,000. The VP went into Watson’s office and handed him his letter of resignation. Watson refused it, saying, “You are certainly not leaving after we just gave you a $10 million education.” That’s a visionary CEO. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t trying hard enough.
Mistakes aren’t all the same level of seriousness. There are mistakes in decisions about what people will buy or reject, mistakes in calculations, mistakes in fact, mistakes called typos. They aren’t all the same. Put your perfectionism in perspective. How big is the mistake to you? How big is the mistake to your client? If there is a big gap, you have to talk about your differing values.
Give yourself a chance to recover from your perfectionism. See if it is holding you back from being excellent. From risking. From trying. Perfectionism that shrinks your talent into endlessly hunting for a mistake can cripple your motivation and your skills. No one gets through life without mistakes. Rather than beating yourself up, allow yourself to admit mistakes and learn from them. They will happen again, but less often and on a smaller scale.
—Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist.