I can remember being a kid in grade school and getting a little thrill whenever the teacher handed back my assignment and there was a shiny gold star or an A+ in red ink at the top of the page. I didn’t recognize it then, but I made that scholastic success mean that I was good. Not that my work was good, but that I was good.
Looking back, I realize now that this was the start of a pattern for me. I learned to look outside of myself for validation. If I’m really good, I can get a scholarship to the university of my choice. If I’m really good, I can get into medical school, then anesthesia residency, then the staff position at the university.
Not only did I strive for achievements, but always doing well became an essential part of my identity. I considered myself to be a perfectionist, and I was proud of that. “I am someone who strives for excellence in everything they do.”
But here’s the truth about perfectionism. The drive to be perfect comes from being afraid. Afraid of being judged, or criticized, or rejected. And here’s the kicker: perfection is an unattainable standard.
So in striving for perfection, I set myself up for failure. I created a loop where I was striving for a goal that was always out of reach. Hello, imposter syndrome.
Now you might say, “So what”? And in a way, you’d be right. Trying to be perfect has led me to lots of accomplishments. Look at all I’ve achieved through striving. But what I wonder is what didn’t I do because I was afraid that I couldn’t do it perfectly? How much unnecessary suffering did I bring upon myself?
Now, I consider myself a recovering perfectionist. And here’s what I teach:
Aiming for B minus work is so much smarter than aiming for A plus.
Are you cringing a little bit right now? Let me explain. Most of the time, the incremental effort required to go from B minus to A plus is not worth it. I’m not saying that there won’t be times when you’ll want your work to be stellar, but most of the time good enough is good enough.
Let’s take charting as an example. How many of you can relate to the problem of ending a busy clinic with several hours of charting left to do? You want your charts to be beautifully done, complete, and comprehensive. Creating beautiful charts is a point of pride. But in order to achieve this ideal, maybe you have to spend 2 hours charting after the kids are in bed.
Now if we really thought about it, the purpose of the chart is to record and transmit important medical information. If we were smart about it, we’d figure out how to convey as much relevant information as possible with the least amount of effort in the shortest amount of time. The end result might not be perfect, but the ability to leave at 5 pm with all our charts done is so much more valuable than creating the best chart.
If you really want to be productive, get things done, and put as much value out into the world as possible, then perfectionism just gets in the way. It is totally true that “done” is so much better than “done perfectly”.
If you’d like help recovering from your perfectionism and looking outside yourself for validation, I’m here to help.