Listening to Roger Federer’s post-match interview following his eighth Wimbledon title, I was struck by the comments he made about his desire to play the perfect tennis match. On the one hand this is an aspiration that has driven his whole career. On the other, he understands that ‘the perfect match’ is unattainable.
The fact is that Federer is driven in large part by perfectionism. This is reflected in his record breaking achievements on the court. Don’t worry, I’m not going to list them all! As well as his philanthropic endeavours off the court. Federer’s Foundation is set to open its 81st pre-school in Malawi, and aims to provide educational opportunities to 1 million children by the end of 2018.
I’m driven by perfectionism myself. I’ve hit tens of thousands of tennis balls. Clocked up hours of coaching. Watched numerous matches with my favourite players. In my own strive for perfectionism, the result of all that effort was one fleeting moment where I whipped my backhand crosscourt, and for one fleeting second, imagined how it must feel to be Federer. Not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Wimbledon.
I’ve never considered my perfectionism to be a problem. Although I do have a low tolerance for sloppy workmanship, poor spelling and grammar, and exacting standards if you work for me.
But in the business coaching space, I’ve heard a number of people bemoan perfectionism. ‘It’s the enemy of getting things done.’ ‘Done is better than perfect.’ A Google search of ‘perfectionism’ throws up 17.5 million articles, many of which are unremittingly negative. Let’s be clear, I agree that perfectionism can tip over into destructive, compulsive behaviours.
Is Perfectionism Really Such A Bad Thing?
Perfectionism is what brought us Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Ruben’s Descent From The Cross and Picasso’s Guernica. The balletic artistry of Nijinsky, Pavlova, Nureyev, Fonteyn, Baryshnikov and Guillem. Great composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel and Prokoviev. And elite athletes like Messi, Zidane, Jordan, Ali, Graf, Comăneci, Felix and of course Federer.
And from a business perspective, Steve Jobs, Gordon Ramsey, Michelle LeRoux, Mark Zuckerberg, Sophie Cornish and Chrissie Rucker are all perfectionists, committed to excellence and delivering the very best quality products with the highest levels of customer service.
Psychologists have studied perfectionism for decades, detailing its role in amazing creative accomplishments as well as its destructive qualities. Perfectionism doesn’t always result in tremendous artistic and intellectual achievements. If it’s not coupled with great ability, resilience, and a solid work ethic, it can lead to procrastination and other self-defeating behaviours, including eating disorders. But this makes perfectionism like many other personality traits: too much or too little can be harmful, but the just the right amount can be a huge competitive advantage.
The Three Types Of Perfectionism
Psychologist Gordon Flett of York University in Toronto has identified three different types perfectionism, each with its own set of drawbacks. Those who are entirely self-motivated. Those who feel that the world expects them to be impeccable. And those who extend their high standards to everyone else in the immediate orbit.
1. Some perfectionists are almost entirely self-motivated. No matter how much praise they receive from other people, self-oriented perfectionists always find fault with themselves. Karen Kain, Canada’s prima ballerina and one of the most respected dancers in the world, gave over 10,000 performances during her career. But in her biography, Kain wrote that she received satisfaction from only 12 of them as her primary feeling about her abilities was disappointment.
2. Other perfectionists feel as though the world expects them to be impeccable. In the classroom, these are the children who won’t try new things because they’re afraid of looking foolish. They often feel sad or angry because they perceive the demands of others as unreasonable and unfair. Because they need to appear perfect, “socially-proscribed” perfectionists almost never ask for help. They keep problems to themselves and allow them to fester.
3. The third group of perfectionists extends their high standards to everyone else in their immediate orbit. “They demand the same thing from others that they demand in themselves, which seems fair to them,” says Flett. Personal relationships are nearly difficult, marriages fall apart and they often make the world’s worst bosses.
In the eyes of many, perfectionism is setting your own standards so high that you are eternally disappointed. But I prefer to frame perfectionism as the strive for excellence – while accepting that mistakes and errors will be made. No harshness, just learning and continual improvement.
So I’m going to continue to apply this familiar rhyme from generations past which was used by parents and teachers to motivate children:
Good, better, best. Never let it rest, Til your good is better And your better best.”
And to celebrate my own perfectionism and ridiculously high standards which constantly leave me found wanting. Because I want to make everything I do the very best it can possibly be. Whether it’s my own brand which is currently in development, the way I on-board new clients, the communications I write from an article on this blog to an email to my subscribers, through to the business advice I give to clients.
Join The Conversation
Question: Are you a perfectionist? How do you manage these tendencies if they tip over to unhelpful behaviours? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share how you’re going to use this in the comments box below.
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Work With Me
I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible business leaders to build profitable and successful brands that do good, make money and help to change the world. I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO, to help my clients to achieve their goals.
I’d love to start a conversation about whether we’re a good fit to work together. Simply use this link to arrange an informal Skype coffee chat. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether 1:1 business coaching (or business consultancy) would be right for you.
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