Rejecting Perfection

Ever since writing that post on quality last week I have felt uneasy, knowing that perfectionists might understand it as an exhortation to be even more perfect. It isn’t. Good work is a worthy goal. Perfect work isn’t. In fact, aiming for perfection can stand in the way of moving important, useful, even life-changing work forward. Good work gets drowned in a flood of criticism (usually internal) if the standard for “good” becomes “perfect.”

“Perfect” is a useless goal because it shuts down the possibility of improvement. If that strategy I wrote with such effort is perfect, I certainly can’t be asked to consider new information and re-write it. If my new template is perfect no one could possibly have a problem with it. If my product is perfect but it pre-tests badly, who is to blame? We are too invested in maintaining the perfection of things we think are perfect.

The other problem with perfection is that we tend to conflate our work with ourselves, and our value as people. If you believe your work has to be perfect, if you are invested in how perfect your work can be, you will be devastated when it is not. Failure to produce perfect work becomes failure as a human being – which, of course, is intolerable. And so what do we do if we are people who conflate our perfect work with our value as people? We contract. We stop taking risks, stop trying things where we have no chance of perfection.

So aiming for perfection prevents growth and makes us feel like failures as people. Can we let perfection go, please?

But….Quality! Didn’t I just write a post about quality? Shouldn’t quality and perfection at least be in the same neighborhood? I don’t believe they are. Quality is about things that work. Perfection is about things that are flawless. I sure hope I am a “quality” employee, writer, mother, and wife, but I am certainly flawed. What we aim for when we aim for quality is a product that meets its goals, that fulfills its aims, that does what it is meant to do.

Defining quality as doing what it is meant to do rather than as perfection opens up a way to see products at every stage of the work process as high quality. Let me give an example. Imagine you are asked to produce a rough draft of a document and share it with your boss. If you are aiming for perfection this is a hopeless task. A perfect rough draft? No such thing. You will write and polish that sucker until it shines. The problem is that a finished draft is not a rough draft, and so it does not do what it is meant to do. Why might a boss want a rough draft rather than a polished draft? To open space to generate ideas, to begin to frame and understand issues, and to be free to change directions. Perfection leaves no room for those things.

Lots of other work products can’t serve their functions if they must be perfect. There can be no perfect outlines, bulleted lists, sketches, or prototypes. But there can be good ones, useful ones, high-quality ones. You produce those high-quality work products by keeping in mind what they are intended for, what makes them useful, and then making sure you have invested enough ownership, effort, process, and knowledge (see last week’s Building Quality post) to make your work as good as it can be. And then, because you are not worried about people finding out you aren’t perfect, you are ready to hear how to make your work even better.

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