On Perfectionism

I don't know when it happened. Or rather, I don't know when things changed. I clearly remember a time when the internal monologue in my head was negative every time I failed. And I clearly recognize that today that voice doesn't make its way into my stream of consciousness. So at some point it went away. Maybe because as an adult I got comfortable with mistakes. I really don't know.

I'm talking about what we call perfectionism.

And no, I'm not talking about conscientiousness. I'm not talking about deliberate effort with a focus on success. I'm talking about getting mad and hearing all the negative self-talk when a mistake is made.

I know that every time I prepared for an interview, people would say that they were going to ask about my weakness, and “perfectionism” was supposed to be a good answer. But I never used it. Because of those negative voices in my head. I didn't really want to admit to that.

Growing Up As a Kid

The research by Carol Dweck about growth mindsets was lived out in real life in my home growing up. My brother is 15 months younger than me. That's because doctors told my mom if they wanted a “normal” kid, they should get pregnant right away. And they did. (We're not sure exactly how I survived as a 3-month premie in 1970, but I'm thankful that the University of Arizona had an incubator.)

In our house, my brother was praised as the smart one. I was praised for my effort. Who knew we were living out a longitudinal study for Dweck without realizing it.

She discovered that kids who were praised for their intelligence were less interested in doing something they may not be good at. They might suddenly be bad at something, and that would impact how they saw themselves.

Kids praised for their efforts were much more willing to try something new, and even fail at it because they knew they could just try again. It was only an issue of effort, after all.

Mistakes Shape Our Learning

Somehow, by the time I had graduated college, I had learned my lesson. Work and effort could outpace the smartest people in the world. I know – I went to a school with brilliant people and knew I wasn't nearly as smart as them.

Then I went to work at Berkeley Lab, where super smart people worked and did amazing things. I enjoyed being there, but I was also very clear that I wasn't one of those people. I even had one of those people suggest I might try something other than technology because it would be ever-changing and require tons of effort to stay current.

He had no idea I had spent my entire life learning how to work hard.

[Tweet “I can't learn what will work, if I'm not willing to try things that might not work. “]

I had no idea I would still be doing roughly the same thing I started doing in 1994 – building web-based hosted applications with technology that hadn't existed until recently.

And embracing the fact that mistakes would be made. Tons of them. None of them so bad that you'd die (but I did fear dying when I accidentally deleted a database instead of backing it up).

Mistakes aren't often fatal. But they do shape our learning. And perfectionism gets in our way – because it doesn't want to let mistakes in.

I can't learn what will work, if I'm not willing to try things that might not work. This is true in technology, in marketing, in product development and in strategy.

In other words, if you bring a growth mindset, a commitment to effort and hard work, and a willingness to take intelligent risks, I believe you can do almost anything.

I say “almost” because I've spent the last two weeks watching the Olympics and I can assure you no positive mental orientation will help me compete at any level like that.

My Favorite Coaching Story

I've been a teacher, classroom aide, public speaker, trainer, and coach. Basically, alongside my technology and product roles, I've never stopped being an educator (and this blog is another way I continue doing what I love).

So it's likely no shock to you that one of my favorite stories is about a coach. A rather famous one who coached a rather famous athlete – Andre Agassi. This excerpt comes from his autobiography, about a conversation with Brad Gilbert (when Andre and his manager were about to hire him as his coach).

“So, listen, Brad, one reason we wanted to meet with you is, we want to get your take on Andre's game.

“Say what?

“Andre's game. We'd like you to tell us what you think.

“What I think?


“You want to know what I think of his game?

“That's right.

“You want me to be honest?


“Brutally honest?

“Don't hold back.

“He takes an enormous swallow of beer and commences a careful, thorough, brutal-as-advertised summary of my flaws as a tennis player.

“It's not rocket science, he says. If I were you, with your skills, your talent, your return and footwork, I'd dominate. But you've lost the fire you had when you were sixteen. That kid, taking the ball early, being aggressive, what the hell happened to that kid?

“Brad says my overall problem, the problem that threatens to end my career prematurely—the problem that feels like my father's legacy—is perfectionism.

“You always try to be perfect, he says, and you always fall short, and it f**ks with your head. Your confidence is shot, and perfectionism is the reason. You try to hit a winner on every ball, when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety percent of the time.

“He talks a mile a minute, a constant drone, not unlike a mosquito. He builds his argument with sports metaphors, from all sports, indiscriminately. He's an avid sports fan, and an equally avid metaphor fan.

“Quit going for the knockout, he says. Stop swinging for the fences. All you have to be is solid. Singles, doubles, move the chains forward. Stop thinking about yourself, and your own game, and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses. Attack his weaknesses. You don't have to be the best in the world every time you go out there. You just have to be better than one guy. Instead of you succeeding, make him fail. Better yet, let him fail. It's all about odds and percentages. You're from Vegas, you should have an appreciation of odds and percentages. The house always wins, right? Why? Because the odds are stacked in the house's favor. So? Be the house! Get the odds in your favor.

“Right now, by trying for a perfect shot with every ball, you're stacking the odds against yourself. You're assuming too much risk. You don't need to assume so much risk. F**k that. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid. Be like gravity, man, just like motherf**king gravity. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you're doing? You're chasing something that doesn't exist. You're making everyone around you miserable. You're making yourself miserable. Perfection? There's about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can't lose to anybody, but it's not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It's the other times. It's all about your head, man. With your talent, if you're fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you're going to win. But if you're ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head-wise, you're going to lose, lose, lose.”

Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi

First, let me tell you that there's no better way to close a deal than the anti-pitch, which you can see clearly here. Brad isn't pushing to close the deal. He's honest and direct. But in being that clear, Andre knew this was the guy to hire.

[Tweet “When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you're doing? You're chasing something that doesn't exist. – Brad Gilbert”]

More importantly, the stuff Brad said to him was exactly on point. Perfectionism drives you to reach for something that doesn't exist – which will always catch you looking in the wrong direction.

Perfectionism Gets You Focused on the Wrong Thing

Brad Gilbert brought strategy to many of the players he coached who had more skill than he did. I think one of the things that has allowed me to succeed professionally has been the ability to bring strategy to the table when I'm in the room with people far smarter or more technical than me.

So here's my take.

Perfectionism gets you focused on the pre-determined definition of success.

  • It requires that you first define it (which outside of sports where there's a clear champion is really hard).
  • It requires that there's only one result that counts (even though in business and life there are many right ways to define success).
  • It often subtly requires that you have a clear and short timeline, even if it might take longer to see the results.

Perfectionism makes us define success in such a strict way, that there's likely no way we get there. This leaves us angry. Frustrated.

But more importantly, it leaves us blind.

  • We're blind to the fact that we did something we didn't think we could do.
  • We don't see or notice the amazing things that were accomplished along the way.
  • We forget to look back and see how far we've come.

By focusing on the wrong thing, we don't see the success that is staring us in the face.

So let me repeat what Brad said. Only this time, to you.

With your talent, if you're fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you're going to win.”

Make sure you're not letting your head get in the way of your success.