“What if people won’t want to hire me because I am too young?”
“Give me a break,” he said. “Perfectionists are losers.”
I laughed out-loud at his bluntness, but immediately got what he was saying.
When you sit back and wait until you are perfectly prepared for an opportunity, it passes you by. What highly productive and successful people do is spend as little time as possible at the edge of opportunities, agonizing whether or not to move forward.
Instead, they jump in with both feet and sink or swim quickly. After lots of real-world experience, they fine tune their understanding of the types of opportunities that will most likely be a success and the kinds of situations that will best utilize their talents.
So if you have the tendency to let perfectionism limit your success in the world, how do you overcome it?
Tip #1: Reframe your understanding of how perfect happens.
There is nothing wrong with having very high standards and wanting to produce excellent work.
The problem is, most people don’t understand that extremely high quality work usually results from a practice my father taught me from photography: bracketing.
Bracketing is a general technique of taking multiple frames of the same shot of the same subject using the same or different camera settings.
I used to think that professional photographers took award-winning
shots with every click of the camera. As seasoned professionals, they
surely did not have the same out of focus/finger in front of the lens
or poor lighting problems that plagued my amateur shots, right? Wrong. Great photographers might pluck one great shot in the middle of 99 mediocre ones. They know that it is impossible to get the perfect shot in one try, so they take lots and lots of pictures of the same thing with the hope that one frame will come out perfect.
This technique applies to many things besides photography:
- You do 10 crappy, 15 mediocre and 5 good presentations before doing one that garners you a standing ovation.
- You do 22 average, “good enough” coaching calls before having a conversation with a client that makes your and his hair stand on end.
- You do your stand-up comedy routine for 2 years in every dive club from Fresno, California to Newark, New Jersey before landing a spot on the Tonight Show.
Writer Anne Lamott shares similar advice from her brilliant book, Bird by Bird which should be required reading for anyone who writes. She says:
“People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks, out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sites down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. Alright, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”
She goes on to explain the importance of writing really, really bad first drafts:
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really sh*tty first drafts.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those crazy six pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you are supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go- but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”
So when you feel the breath of your inner perfectionist on your neck, turn to it and say “Thanks for caring, but I am in the process of bracketing and doing really, really sh*tty drafts. I must do this in order to discover the perfect spots of my work, so rest assured that I will not be this bad forever.”
Tip #2: Fail fast and move on
A “perfect” work situation for you is doing work you love and are great at with people that totally support you in an environment that rewards you handsomely. If you are in a less-than-ideal environment and with bad partners, you will always feel inferior and mediocre.
“What really sets superstars apart from everyone else is the ability to escape dead ends quickly, while staying focused and motivated when it really counts.”
You know you are in a situation where you have to quit and move on when:
- A client or partner continuously disappoints you and either makes you feel incompetent or inferior. You find yourself constantly justifying his behavior with things like “He must have just had a bad day,” or “She wasn’t very supportive, but she has taught me a lot,” or “I don’t really enjoy working with him, but he does pay on time …”
- You have poured tons of time and money in an endeavor that never seems to catch fire. Despite enormous effort, you never get any real signals from the universe (or from plain old paying customers or partners) that the project is one you are meant to do. Sometimes, you are embarrassed to admit failure after so much effort and money spent. Don’t worry about that — just cut the strings and move on to the next thing that is more enjoyable to do and will best leverage your talents.
- You are working in an area that has tremendous constraints, so no matter how hard you work, you are not likely to be compensated adequately. This can be a market that is very competitive, clients that can never afford to pay you what you are worth or an idea so complex or difficult that it saps all your time and energy.
How do you know that any of these situations are truly times to quit and not critical moments before a breakthrough?
You just know. Something deep inside will tell you what work you are meant, and not meant to do. Trust your instinct.
Tip #3: Hang out in the right barbershop
A friend of mine said “If you hang out in a barbershop, sooner or later, you are going to get a haircut.”
Which barbershop are you hanging out in? What kind of lives do the people around you lead? Are they positive, filled with humor, successful and creative? Do they constantly learn new things and improve their skills? Do they attract great partners naturally, without being pushy? Make a list of the qualities of people that bring out the best in you. My list of ideal partners includes things like:
- Approaches life with a healthy attitude and learns from mistakes
- Handles money well and isn’t afraid to ask for what she is worth
- Treats others with dignity and respect
- Produces good work consistently
- Puts a priority on family life and does not work excessively
- Has a great sense of humor and laughs at mistakes
- Communicates openly and authentically
As you compile your own list, look around you and ask “Do the people in my life exhibit these qualities? If not, how can I surround myself with people that do?”
Tip #4: Practice forgiveness.
We all make mistakes. Some of us make really big stupid ones (I use “us” very intentionally, as I continue to make some real doozies, even when I know better). Since we know they are part of the journey towards great work, learn how to do the following once you realize you screwed up:
- Understand why you did. This can be things like:
- Didn’t listen to your intuition
- Had too many things happening at once and lost control
- Didn’t have the right partners
- Avoided an uncomfortable area
- Grab the lesson. Ask yourself:
- What can I do next time to avoid this unfortunate result?
- How does this lesson position me for great success in the future?
- What is this situation trying to tell me?
- Forgive and let go. Do not let your period of embarrassment or despair drag on too long. Tell yourself “You screwed up, you learned from it, and now it is time to move on. Everything is alright, and your whining is keeping you from doing the work you are meant to do.”
Bottom line: don’t lose an opportunity, your wit or your will by being a perfectionist. Life is too short!