Perfection or Creativity: Where’s the Balance?

By  0 Comments

There’s a legend associated with some types of needlework typically done by women. According to the myth, the maker purposely inserts a mistake in order to show that she is not trying to achieve God’s level of perfection. You’ll hear the story about Amish quilting and early-American sampler stitching. Historians may dispute its accuracy, but the myth proves that women have had a problematic relationship with perfectionism for quite some time.

According to Alice Boyes, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, perfectionism can be a form of self-sabotage for women at work. This can happen when someone has such high standards for a task or role that they don’t even attempt it because they’re convinced they won’t succeed. Another issue often faced by women who are perfectionists is difficulty processing negative feedback. A perfectionist may be so hard on themselves and so worried about hearing something negative that they avoid getting any type of feedback or guidance.

The Harvard Business Review reports that perfectionism is on the rise, especially among young people who often have impossible goals for their looks, relationships and achievements. Their inability to achieve impossible goals often leads to over-dependence on the validation of others and chronic anxiety, shame and guilt. The “liking” and ranking that takes place in social media often contributes to the problem of excess perfectionism.

Being a perfectionist may seem like an asset at work. Many perfectionists are highly productive, work longer hours and show more motivation than their peers. At the same time, they may be overly critical of others, inflexible and have higher levels of stress. Perfectionists often have a hard time meeting deadlines because they find it hard to call a task finished unless it’s perfect. There is also a high level of job burnout among perfectionists.

What’s the difference between a high achiever and a perfectionist? High achievers strive for excellence and learn from both their successes and failures, while unhealthy perfectionists avoid failure at all costs and beat themselves up when they do fail. Higher achievers may have an innate need for perfection, but they’re not obsessive about it. This kind of healthy perfectionism is valued in many fields. Don’t we all want our doctor, dentist and our car mechanic to be something of a perfectionist?

Unhealthy perfectionism is another story. Perfectionism becomes unhealthy when someone can’t enjoy successes and achievements because they are so busy worrying about things that went wrong along the way. The rumination and brooding that many perfectionists put themselves through can be damaging to their productivity as well as their overall mental health.

Obsessive perfectionism can be a serious creativity blocker. Many perfectionists find it difficult to share creative ideas that will meet with resistance, especially when all the details haven’t been worked out. When your focus is always on success and failure is something to be avoided at all costs, you’re less likely to take creative risks or think outside the box.

In most workplaces, it’s important to strike a balance between the quality of work and the amount of time spent on it. Completing projects on time may be just as important as making sure that every detail has been covered, or in some cases more important. One of the keys to success in many organizations is being able to judge when you can cut corners and when you need to be more meticulous. Spending time on unimportant details is often viewed negatively.

If you know you can be a perfectionist and don’t like the effect it has on your work or personal life, Harvard Business Review has a few suggestions. Try to learn from both your successes and failures, which will help you gain the confidence to face future challenges without an overwhelming fear of failure. Set reasonable goals to avoid disappointment and be on the alert for rumination and circular thinking that isn’t helping you solve your problems.

Instead of listening to the negative voice in your head, change the conversation. Learn meditation or other techniques that will help you let go of negative thinking before it stresses you out. It also helps to be more conscious of where your time goes. Instead of spending all your time trying to perfect something that doesn’t need to be perfect, make time for creative projects and planning. Finally, look around for mentors and role models who are effective at their job while resisting perfectionism, then follow their example.

“Perfect is the enemy of the good” is an oft-repeated quote attributed to Voltaire. It encapsulates the idea that our pursuit of perfection can get in the way of getting anything done. When perfection is unattainable, settling for something that’s “good enough” is often the path to success. ■

Sources:, and