The Problems of Perfectionism | UYGW038

Do you remember a time when a project took you so long to complete because everything needed to be “just right”? Maybe you’re a music composer, and you can’t quite finish that new song because something in the lyrics just refuses to make sense. Or, maybe you’re like me, and you were writing a book that created internal turmoil because that book could only house thirteen brilliant ideas individually picked from a lifetime of knowledge. The explanation? Perfectionism. The problem with perfectionism? It’s impossible. It’s waiting for every single piece of the puzzle to be spotless. When we find ourselves confronting spouts of perfectionism, it makes accomplishing our Great Work ten times harder and ten times longer to achieve. If we can find a way to let go of being the best and pleasing every single person on the face of this earth, we can achieve something greater than perfection: Commitment to Excellence. As I approach my great and beautiful forty-fifth year of life this week, I reflect on how much Great Work I have achieved and will continue to achieve. I celebrate my willingness to be unique and my strength to fail fast. Because if we can’t let go of getting it right on the first try, there’s no possible way to achieve our Great Work in enough time to be able to celebrate it.

Join us as we discuss: 

00:59 Perfectionism is the number one weakness in our lives.

02:10 The two problems of Perfectionism.

04:44 How perfectionism can play that role in creative work, scientific work, and in an email. 

05:24 Perfection is impossible but we’re making it as our standard.

07:19 The difference between Perfectionism and Commitment to Excellence.

09:55 Perfectionism is based on other people’s perceptions and expectations.

11:05 Perfectionism is removing uniqueness from your work.

12:52 Great work is built on the four pillars of great work.

15:04 What is a defensive failure, and how perfectionism becomes a defensive failure.

16:45 The consequences of perfectionism.

About the Host:

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist, speaker, podcaster, author of Great Work, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda’s TEDx talk: Three Reasons You Aren’t Doing What You Say You Will Do has received more than a million views and has been featured on TED’s Ideas blog and TED Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global. Amanda lives in New Jersey with her husband, two adorable kids, and a remarkable newfiepoo named Ruthie. She spends her days educating future teachers, coaching accidental entrepreneurs, and speaking about how to make progress on Great Work to colleges and corporate teams. To book Dr. Crowell to speak or inquire about coaching, check out or email




Podcast: PODCAST – Amanda Crowell


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Dr. Amanda Crowell:

perfection is impossible, because perfectionism really is about meeting every expectation and expectations come from individuals and different individuals have different expectations.

Dr. Amanda Crowell:

Welcome to unleashing your great work, a podcast about doing the work that matters the most to you. I'm your host, Dr. Amanda Crowell, a cognitive psychologist, coach, author of the book, great work and the creator of the great work journals. Every week on this podcast, we're here asking the big questions. What is your great work? How do you find it? And why does it matter? Whether we do it? What does it actually take to do more of your great work without sacrificing everything else? And how does the world change when more people are doing more of the work that matters the most to them? Stay tuned for answers to these questions, and so much more.

Dr. Amanda Crowell:

Perfectionism is a funny thing. It's the number one weakness that we will all admit to admit it. If you were in a job interview in somebody said, Tell me a little bit about what you're not great at, you would totally say,

Dr. Amanda Crowell:

Well, you know, I take a little too long, I care a little too much. Sometimes I don't know when to stop. We all love to share perfectionism as a weakness. And I think it's because we haven't really wrapped our head around the fact that perfectionism is a huge problem. Often, when we think of ourselves as perfectionist, we are talking about holding every piece of work that we do to a standard, where no one could say that it wasn't perfect. It wasn't exactly right, it wasn't ready for the big time. Perfection is a commitment to meeting expectations. There are at least two problems with that. The first is that if we hold ourselves to making sure that every single thing we do is perfect from the beginning, we are never, ever going to move quickly enough to do great work in our lives, we're going to be stopped at every corner. Because if we've never done it before, there's a lot that needs to be figured out. And if we don't allow ourselves to fail fast and adjust course, and all of those things, then we are going to be hobbled, we're going to move so slowly that our great work is not going to progress quickly enough. This is something that I have experienced many times when there's something I really really care a lot about, but I haven't done it before. And as I'm trying to figure it out, I have to move forward despite the fact that the work I'm doing is in no way perfect. It's actually maybe a little bit bad. Probably the best example of that was when I was writing my book, great work. I think I've told this story many times that book started out as the aligned time method, I had created these journals that are now the great work journals. They were time management journals. And I was writing my book in order to explain the time management philosophy behind the journals. And as I was writing that book, I realized, you know, it was my first book ever. And I realized that it's such a difficult task to choose from a lifetime of knowledge and choose the like 13 ideas that can go of the 1000s of ideas. I have the 1000 ways of thinking about things of the 10 million stories. I've heard of the, you know, hundreds of studies I've read, like how do I pick the 13th to go into a chapter. It was excruciating. And I hemmed and hawed and first to put them all in. And then, you know, I started trying to pull them out. And every single one that I had to make the choice to pull out or include, came with this worry that if I don't have it in there, will I be establishing myself as enough of an expert, will people be able to understand it? Well, you know, as a massive, complicated, multifaceted, creative work, writing a book was full of decisions that if you wanted to, every day, one of them could keep you stuck. They're not moving forward. And that's perfectionism. I'm not moving forward until it's right. But it can't be right yet. And that is excruciating. Perfectionism plays that role in creative work, scientific work, it can play that role in an email. Have you ever sat down to write a response email, and return to it and return to it and return to it until you realize it's been a week and you still haven't to the email? I bet you have. So many people have resonated when I've talked about perfectionism in this way. We've all done it. And that's problematic because we want to be able to get to our great work. We finally found the time we cleared our schedule, and then we sit down to do it. And it goes so slowly because we're in insisting on perfectionism at every turn. That's a real problem. The other problem with perfection as our standard, beyond making us move so slowly that it seems like we're walking through quicksand is that perfection is impossible. Because perfectionism really, is about meeting every expectation. And expectations come from individuals, and different individuals have different expectations. So, perfectionism is like this entrenched commitment. In order to be perfect all the time, we somehow have to walk this extremely thin line that sits at the intersection, it's like, if you've ever seen the guy, pictures of the guy who walks the tight wire between the Twin Towers, there's a movie about it on Netflix. And he's walking on this tiny little sliver of a metal string between the two twin towers before 911. And if you imagine that you are trying to walk that line, and you're really what you're trying to do is sit at the intersection of 50 lines all at the same time, think about what it means to be perfect in this world that we live in. It's like, you have to be forthright, but never to direct, and you have to be thoughtful, but never too personal. And you have to be creative, but also efficient. It's this impossibility to meet everyone's expectation. In order to do that, we'd have to do the impossible, which is impossible. But before I get into that, I want to back up and really clarify that perfectionism and commitment to excellence are not the same thing. So when you're doing great work, you have to have a commitment to excellence. But you do not have to be a perfectionist. And this is something I find gets really, really tangled in people's minds when we start talking about perfectionism. Because really, I think people, though, they have been convinced that you can offer it as a weakness in a job interview, they actually think that it really is strength, right? Like this is the kind of like hustle and commitment and drive that sets a person apart. And I just want to distinguish between commitment to excellence and perfectionism because they are wildly different things. Great work requires a commitment to excellence, you need to do things, well, you have to stay with them. When they get hard, you have to find most of the typos, you have to check your tone and make sure that it's right like there are sort of passes or levels or systems and structures that guide a person's work and take it from a first effort which is going to be, you know, just kind of slapdash, and take it up to a professional, expert, great work level. That is a commitment to excellence that I fully support when you're writing that email, if you write it, and then take a day and check the tone and run it through Grammarly. That's a commitment to excellence. But that's really, really different from perfectionism, which is where we sit and worry and wonder what other people are, how they're going to interpret it, what they're going to say how they're going to see you differently, based on this piece of your work. That's perfectionism. They're totally different. One commitment to excellence is savvy and strategic. And it involves sometimes doing b minus work, meaning doing work that isn't at the highest level. Because strategically, when you look at your entire body of work, you realize that whatever this piece of it is, is not that important. So a commitment to excellence. Sometimes when you have your strategic hat on, or you're being savvy, involves doing work, that could be better. Because you don't need everything to be perfect, you need the body of work overall to function to accomplish what it's hoping to accomplish. That's a commitment to excellence. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is waiting for each and every single piece to be perfect.

Dr. Amanda Crowell:

When you think about perfectionism, we're really talking about putting our work out into the world in a way where no one can have a problem with it. And people have problems with everything. But when you're a perfectionist, what you're really trying to control how those other people see us. And that is an impossible task. Because what's really too direct for one person is not getting to the point fast enough for someone else. And that's how we end up twisting ourselves into pretzels to meet the expectations of everybody else, as we put our work out into the world. Perfection perfectionism is problematic also because it's a way of removing uniqueness from our work. So I have a particular writing style. That's pretty The dramatic, it's kind of, it's not super extreme, but I have a tendency to say things like everyone will hate me. And then when I'm in a perfectionist mindset, I'll go in and I'll edit it out, well, some people, not everybody will have a problem with the way that I said it, you know, and it loses its oomph, it loses its demand on us, right? If I say everybody hates me, you can feel the demandingness in that. But if you get a sentence in a blog, or, you know, on a podcast or something, that's like, there are times when some individuals will feel less than positively about you, you will have known that the Amanda Enos was edited out of it. Now, I'm not saying that that's always a problem. Sometimes we do want to temper our language, if we're going into a political environment, or a very sensitive one or a volatile one, we want to be careful with our words, that's a commitment to excellence, that's considering the the audience that's going to be hearing it. But if it's on my own blog, or on my own podcast, and I'm trying to make a point, and my way of making points is to use sort of big, expansive language that everybody hates me is better. But when we have this mindset of perfectionism, when we're projecting out into the world, and asking, Will anybody have a problem with this? The answer will always be Yes, until you have edited out every bit of uniqueness. And that is frankly, utterly inauthentic. And not helpful when you're trying to do great work. Because remember, great work is built on the four pillars of great work, one of which is your unique point of view, your lived experience, your beliefs, your stories, your life, your way of seeing the world, that's what you can offer to the world. And yes, you have to do it in relationship with other people. Right, you want to do it in collaboration. And it's okay to know that other people exist and to wonder how they might perceive it. But it has to be balanced against your own unique point of view and your way of communicating because it's unique and important that your own voice, really be out in the world. If what you're trying to do is move a group of people, no one's moved by. Some people might think of you last pause, and that's not moving. Everyone will hate me. However, for the people who like my tone, they'll know what I mean, because it's infused, it's got the gestalt of Amanda in it. And I'm here for the gestalt of Amanda, it's the only thing I can really offer to the world that the world has not seen before. Perfectionism, as a trait tends to remove the uniqueness. You know, the other thing is that perfectionism, I like to think of it as defensive failures, last stand. It's a protective measure, defensive failure, I talked about it in my TED talk, you can go check it out the kinds of the ways that we keep ourselves from doing what we say we want to do. Perfectionism isn't part of the TED talk, because the TED talk was really about how do we get started doing what we say we want to do? And what how does procrastination play a role in keeping us stuck. But as I was writing great work in in the chapter, where I'm discussing defensive failure and other mindset issues, I talked about the last moment where defensive failure kicks in, right? So defensive failure is our tendency to fail. By doing nothing, instead of doing the thing, and perfectionism holds us hostage, right at the end of whatever it is we're doing, right? You've written the email, you've read it over, but you don't hit send, why? Because you don't want the email to go out there and have unintended consequences, and hit somebody the wrong way, or strike the wrong tone, or, you know, commit you to something that later you've changed your mind about, you know, it's our desire to be protected from those kinds of the unknown, the unintended consequences, that keeps us committed to this perfectionist mindset. It's fear based, but the truth about great work, the truth about putting your own unique point of view out there is that that is an occupational hazard that you're just gonna have to get used to, if you're putting your unique point of view out into the world, especially if you're doing it regularly. People are going to have their reactions they just are, some of them are going to be really positive and great and some of them are going to be really negative. That's just how it is. When we're trying to edit out all of the uniqueness and stopping ourselves right before we could actually have the impact we were hoping to have. This is how perfectionism becomes defensive failure And then finally, perfectionism has this really important consequence, which is, everything we do takes like six times as long. And we end up with a workflow that's six times more intense than it needed to be. This leads to burnout and exhaustion and the overall feeling that we can't actually do our great work, it's too hard, it's too much for us, we'll get carried away, we'll get swept away, we're gonna end up crushed by our great work, there's a strong reason why the subtitle to great work is, do what matters most without sacrificing everything else. Because this was a lesson I had to learn at least four times, before I really understood it. And at the heart, of a lot of the burnout and exhaustion that I felt in my great work up until I really got a handle on it was because I was holding myself to this perfectionism, what I realized about perfectionism is that it is at the heart of it. And I'm not talking about a commitment to excellence. Let's just remember that, right? I'm talking about perfectionism, I'm talking about worrying over how we're going to be perceived, because of the work that we did, if we did a good job, and we put it out in the world, it's the unintended consequence, it's the person who sees it and has a negative reaction, it's the person who sees it, and then comes over and tries to argue with you, it's a person who perceives your work, and then comes to micromanage you, right, the boss who is like, I don't like the way that you did this, here, let me help you. And then like, you know, controls your work for six months. Perfectionism is an effort to control all of that, instead of being authentic, putting your work out there with a commitment to excellence, and instead be in relationship with all of that, you know, I'm turning 45 This week, I am now I've decided I'm going to live to at least 90. This is what I told myself many times. So I'm now officially at the midway point of my life. And so as I sit here, right at the pinnacle of middle adulthood, middle age, you know, I'm realizing that the consequence of perfectionism in particular are consequences I'm no longer willing to bear. Because I want to move more quickly. I want to hone the ability to express the gestalt of Amanda more fluidly, more flexibly, more creatively with more fun, so that more people can really hear it and understand it. And that means that I have to let go of trying to control how people see me, I have to let them see everybody will hate me and have whatever thought they want. Wow, she's dramatic. Wow, she thinks a lot of herself. Wow, she talks like child what ever, in my own mind plays out, usually on that ticker tape, and causes me to mute my words and say it in a way that's more vanilla more easily acquired by I don't know, my, my imaginary masses. I have to learn how to stop doing that. And I have been working really hard, I think all the way through writing great work and doing this podcast and just in life, to be who I actually am, and sharing what I actually think. And honestly, that is the strategy that has worked for me, when I find myself second guessing and questioning, worrying over how people will perceive it. What I stop and ask myself now is what am I really hoping to accomplish? What do I really want to say? What do I really believe? And then how can I help people hear that most effectively. That's my commitment to excellence. I'm not going to slap it together and say hurtful things or say things in a confusing way. And then say, Oh, it's just who I am, I am who I am. And you just have to live with it to the world. I'm not going to do that, of course, because then I don't have the impact that I want. That's not what I'm hoping to accomplish. But I'm also not going to worry myself to death, that the way that I'm saying something is going to hit somebody the wrong way. And instead I'm going to say it that way, so that the people who really like my point of view, can hear it. And the people who don't like the way I express things, know for sure that they should move on that they shouldn't listen any longer. Perfectionism as a trait is more harmful than helpful. And I hope that the thought that that commitment to excellence is totally separate from perfectionism. Seeing those as two separate things, and letting go of the idea that I can control somebody else's Your reaction to my work has really helped me a lot. And I hope that it's helpful to you.

Dr. Amanda Crowell:

See you next week.


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