In 1985, Jobs was forced out of Apple after a long power struggle with John Sculley, the CEO. In response, Jobs left Apple and took a handful of the employees to start a brand new company, The Next Computer.
The company produced a much more powerful workstation style computer meant for colleges, and it was housed in this black cube-shaped case.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, he recounts how Jobs insisted the black paint that covered the outside of this case also be applied to the inside at extra cost, even though almost no customer would ever open it up and see the paint for themselves.
And the story illustrates one of Jobs’s most famous qualities, his perfectionism.
Jobs demanded absolute perfection of all the hardware and software that he and his team developed. And it’s one of the reasons why he was notoriously hard to work for. It’s one of the reasons that pushed him to be so cruel to his employees at times.
And yet, the legacy left behind by jobs and by other famous perfectionists often makes perfectionism seem like something worth striving for. A lot of people are very pride to call themself a perfectionist.
Perfectionism is a weakness
It has to be said. It can benefit the stories from people like jobs can make it seem like a strength. But overall, the drawbacks do outweigh those benefits.
Perfectionism, being more motivated at work and putting in more hours, was also aligned with stress, burnout, anxiety, overworking, and depression.
Perfectionism has even more drawbacks. Often focus way too intently on a small part of a project that ultimately doesn’t matter at the end of the day.
It’s important to tell you what a perfectionist is because it isn’t just somebody who has high standards for themselves. As a psychologist, David Burns describes it,
A perfectionist is a person whose standards are high beyond reach a reason and who strains compulsively and unremittingly towards impossible goals and measures their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment.David Burns
Having high standards for yourself is a great thing, but perfectionists tend to take it a bit too far. They set the bar impossibly high, and then they tie their self-worth to it.
Types of perfectionism
Classically, perfectionism has been divided into two camps adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. These have also been called excellent seeking perfectionism and failure, avoiding perfectionism.
The excellence seeking perfectionist is a person with ultra-high standards for their work.
They’re continually trying to make their work as good as it can be. And they apply that perfectionism to people working under them.
The failure avoiding perfectionists or the people who are more fixated on not failing, they’re worried that other people don’t think their work is good enough and, by extension, that they aren’t good enough either.
Drawbacks of perfectionism
The significant drawbacks of perfectionism, depression, anxiety, stress, and burnout were more aligned with the failure, avoidance type of perfectionism.
But they were also aligned with the excellent seeking type. To a lesser degree, they still were there. And crucially, they also found that neither type of perfectionism was aligned with better overall work performance.
So even though we may have people like Jobs as the storied counterexample, being a perfectionist doesn’t make you better at your job. So the question now is what we can do about this?
If we are perfectionists, how can we move past it and let perfectionism be less influential in our life and on our work?
Well, the first thing is to work on setting more realistic expectations for yourself. As the author, Martin Antony, writes in his book, When Perfect isn’t good enough.
Although standards and beliefs are subjective, people usually take for granted that their interpretations, their beliefs, their predictions and standards are true.
Becoming less perfectionistic will involve relaxing your standards and changing your perfectionistic beliefs. It’ll involve treating your standards and beliefs as possibilities or guesses about the way the world should be rather than as hard facts.Martin Anstee. When Perfect isn’t good enough
Next, if you’re going to perfect something, then perfect how you allocate your efforts. In other words, get to know the 80/ 20 rule. This rule states that 80 % of the results often come from just 20 % of the vital few efforts.
Perfectionists are often pretty bad, identifying those vital few things both as individuals and sometimes as entire organizations.
There is an excellent story from the book Creativity Inc, which is written by Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, where he writes,
There is a phenomenon that the producers of Pixar call the beautifully shaded penny.
It refers to the fact that the artists who work on our films care so much about every detail that they will sometimes spend days or weeks crafting the equivalent of a penny on a nightstand that you’ll never see.Ed Catmull. Creativity Inc
The way You can handle this is to get critical about your work. Try to identify that crucial 20 %, that vital few, and spend a little bit less time fixating on the 80 % that doesn’t matter.
Be imperfect on purpose
One of the most common ways to get over fear is called exposure therapy. Essentially, you expose yourself to the thing you fear over and over and over again at slightly increasing levels of intensity until eventually, you’re just kind of over it.
And to apply this principle of exposure therapy to this problem, you need to be imperfect on purpose.
An excellent way to do this makes Yourself a challenge to do something particular in a short time and finish it at that time. Period.
And do this daily for a month, for example.
It could be anything.
- write one article per day for the next 30 days
- make one artwork a day for a month
- finish one little project every day for the next month or two
There’s a reason for that method to be effective.
Not only do these deadlines give you very little time to fixate and act on perfectionist tendencies, but they also give you a ton of feedback. You’re making and publishing things and getting feedback on them, and coming back and reviewing them. And this helps you get better.
Perfectionists are lack of feedback
Perfectionists don’t do any better at work than non-perfectionists, but they didn’t know why this is the reason. Perfectionists don’t get that feedback that is crucial to growth.
Be imperfect on purpose.
Not only are you going to get that feedback, but each time that you act imperfectly, you’re going to prove to your brain that imperfection is not the disaster that you thought it would be.