Lies – perfection should be the target of your work – DBR 018

The lie:
Perfection should be the underlying goal of your work Or (rephrased) you should pursue ‘excellence’ in everything you do. The truth is that technical perfection is both unrealistic and unnecessary. Excellent is an undefined word.
Intro to perfectionism:
I’ve seen a lot lately on perfectionism. Kevin Miller, on his Self Helpful podcast, did a series on it. That’s been recent as of this recording time. But if you want to look him up in the archives, it would be January 2024. I became aware of a book by Ruth Soukup, “Do It Scared”. She covers seven archetypal fears that she discovered in surveying a segment of her clientele. She walks us through ways to address each archetype. And she has a tool to tell us, which is our primary archetype. One of her archetypes is the perfectionist. I even had a conversation on LinkedIn with a couple of a couple of buddies about this, where we’re posting back and forth and kind of walking through some things on perfectionism. Let’s see what we can know and figure out.
The problem
  • Definition of perfectionism – ‘nominal search for perfection’. Nominal because we know good and well that we can’t produce a perfect product
  • But then we call ourselves ‘perfectionists’ – Trojan Horse Excuse or ‘humble brag’
  • Companies that build things have a different view of ‘perfect’ quality – additional areas of quality
    • Lower cost, less work-in-progress, less inventory, cycle or turn time, etc.
  • Imposter syndrome
  • ‘Best effort’ is more correct, but its hard to say out loud
  • How people actually judge our work and look for defects
  • So people are going to have something to say about your work – this is good feedback
The three aspects of perfectionism (Hat tip: Kevin Miller)
  • Self-oriented – me being a perfectionist with my own work
  • Outward-directed – me being a perfectionist when I’m their customer
  • Directed at me – others being perfectionist when they’re my customer
  • But human beings are satisficers, so we don’t require perfect solutions nor are we (usually) willing to pay for them.
  • Oftentimes, our feedback is more a statement of (temporary) preference than a judgment of quality.
  • Our feelings get hurt pretty easily – the source of the perfectionism trap.
  • Imposter syndrome – Kevin Miller and ‘avoid getting found out’ – idealized self-image
  • Overwork – over delivering on quality as a defensive mechanism or fear response
  • Inflexibility of standards – ‘superstition’
  • Late delivery of work
  • Don’t even start – no credit for a good try
New mindset
  • Good try
  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP) from Agile Project Management
  • Tailored suit and MVP – a good tailor makes just enough suit to see if it fits
  • MVP can work into a bespoke solution
  • Quality and efficiency are outcomes – no system is designed to produce less than 100% quality.
  • Approach each task with humility, then confidence, then more humility.
  • Less stress – perfectionism just transfers stress to worry in early production
  • More experiments -> more learning -> getting better
  • Deliver the work consistently with less turmoil
  • Agile = MVP and backlog management
  • Communication with stakeholders
  • Finish early enough for another go
  • Good try – take credit for having had a shot
The takeaway
We can and should work to eliminate perfectionism in our work lives, and be careful with associated terms like ‘imposter syndrome’ and ‘excellence’. In fact, imposter syndrome is a precise description of what we’re doing when we’re learning and getting better, we’re behaving like imposters (but the good kind).
We need to approach our work with humility (“I’m not perfect at this work”), then confidence (“But I’ve got strong skills and/or experience that will be useful as I do the work”), and, after delivery, more humility (“How can I get better?”).