Perfectionists are losers

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Almost a year ago, I was interviewing my young, bright friend Ramit Sethi on my radio show.  At the ripe age of 26, Ramit had already started a screaming hot blog with a huge following (I Will Teach You to Be Rich, a personal finance blog for college students and recent graduates), gotten 2 degrees from Stanford, started a company and struck 2 book deals.So I asked Ramit a question that I have heard from many young people who want to work for themselves:

“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.

Seth Godin explains this very well in his book The Dip.  I summarized some ideas from the book in a blog post after hearing Seth live here in Phoenix.  He says:

“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!

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32 Responses to “Perfectionists are losers”

  1. […] another way, losers wait for perfection. Winners execute by starting off simple, then ramping up, because the hardest part is not […]

  2. […] flawed …?” Yep, I did too. Didn’t stop me from hitting publish, because perfectionists are losers! Get er done! AKPC_IDS += "5514,"; Filed Under: Uncategorized Tweet […]

  3. […] to get back up to date, but there’s no use in that now is there? Perfectionism is for losers…(See this article) so I thought I’d just carry on going, regardless, and I know I’ll eventually catch up. The […]

  4. Emily Rose says:

    I’m bookmarking this, even tho it probably wont be read again for a while, i want to make sure I can find it when I think I need a perfectionist reality check.

    Thank you for this post!

  5. […] test and try new products in the market.The enemy of a new entrepreneur is endless planning and  perfection.After celebrating that they did take a serious step, I often get a slightly dejected email or […]

  6. […] from exceptional blogger to exceptional best-selling author and businessperson.  He inspired my Perfectionists are Losers post, was interviewed for my pricing series, and was featured in my book in the Testing chapter, […]

  7. […] from exceptional blogger to exceptional best-selling author and businessperson.  He inspired my Perfectionists are Losers post, was interviewed for my pricing series, and was featured in my book in the Testing chapter, […]

  8. […] Check the Safety Net I understand perfectionists are losers! However, when I am about to jump off a 140 foot tower, I need to know that my harness is on […]

  9. […] So many new entrepreneurs get paralyzed with perfectionism. And you know what I feel about that! […]

  10. […] So many new entrepreneurs get paralyzed with perfectionism. And you know what I feel about that! […]

  11. […] might I better understand that perfectionists are losers and learn from photographers who know that it takes 99 so-so shots to get one great […]

  12. […] might I better understand that perfectionists are losers and learn from photographers who know that it takes 99 so-so shots to get one great […]

  13. Enterprise Collaboration and Virtual Teams Report (March 8, 2008)

    The People Part of Enterprise Collaboration and Virtual Teams Microsoft released tools to help with the adoption of SharePoint in the enterprise: the Internal Buzz Kit, and GEAR Up. “Internal Buzz Kit: this kit provides sample materials and training to

  14. Bryant Keefe says:

    Fear is another word for perfection.
    Fear of looking bad, fear of change, fear of failure (looking bad) it all boils down to fear. I was listening to Wayne Dyer the other day and he said “replace the word fear with curiosity” and I got it! I have been having fun ever since. Be curious of what will happen if you do “x” not afraid.

    I continue to enjoy the posts and the thinking!


    Bryant “Aim, Ready, Fire” Keefe

  15. Kimmoy says:

    Has anyone heard of Dan Kennedy’s “The Phenomenon”; it’s basically implementing your business goals head on with speed, and accomplishing more in the next few months than you have in the past years of your life. If you’re passionate and act on your ideas/goals immediately, the better chance you have of actually accomplishing it in. I’m not doing it justice here, but it’s worth checking out.

    Oh yeah, great post!

  16. Former IBM CEO, Thomas Watson once said, ‘The quickest path to success is to increase your rate of failure.’

    I am possibly a little of both. I jump in with both feet into projects that are over my head, and think I can do anything, or at least try. However, I take pride in my work, I ache over all the little details, and consequently I’m often accurately accused of being a workaholic.

    I see acquaintances who put in many fewer hours achieve just as much financial success and probably have a more active personal life. The flip side is that I do really enjoy my work, so being a workaholic is not all bad.

    On Monday I had a client meeting where contracts required that I present three options. By last week I had an agency recommend, and a second option that was also strong. Then there were 3 or 4 other “also ran” ideas. Being a new client, I wanted to knock their socks off. So I worked late on Friday and put in 18 hour days over the weekend blowing out all the angles on the recommended proposal. I had already fleshed out the alternate idea enough earlier in the week to make a respectable case. Then, with all my materials buttoned up, I had to choose the strongest of the “also ran” ideas to fulfill our 3 option obligation. About two hours before the Monday client meeting, I took the strongest of the other half-ideas laying around, and put together a single page for the presentation. I was so proud of all the work on the agency recommend, even with little sleep, I went into the client presentation feeling like a million bucks. The recommended proposal was left for road kill about 5 minutes into the presentation. Of course they went with option 3. That third idea had been sitting around on the back burner since at least Wednesday of last week. If I’d have just left the agency recommend in the state it was in on Friday afternoon, put together the page on option three and went home, it wouldn’t have been perfect, but I’d have had a nice weekend.

    In fairness to myself, everyone has 20/20 hindsight. If I hadn’t blow out the recommend option to the degree I did, the presentation would have come across as thin. I believe the client respected the work that went into it, but preferred the other idea.

    What can I do?

    I came home, crashed like a rock, woke up early, and saw that David J. Hinson had posted your article as a recommended read on Facebook. So here I am.

    I did enjoy your read.


    PS. Drop by GigantiCo some time.


  17. John says:

    Uh…..shouldn’t there be a period after the word “barbershop” in your point #3??? 🙂 (should I just paint the L on my forehead now?)

    Juanito, there is always one in every bunch. 🙂

    I have some leftover “loser paint” from the last time I made a big juicy mistake … feel free to borrow it anytime brother.


  18. Barbara Saunders says:

    Seth Godin’s book The Dip offers great perspective on when to quit, when to change horses in midstream, and when to push through.

  19. Mark Runta says:

    Perfectionism can almost become an escape mechanism. You get stuck at one stage and spin.

    You have articulated the need to keep moving forward very well.

    Excellent post!

  20. As someone who never stopped to test the water before she jumped, perfectionism hasn’t been my problem. Forgiveness has. Coaching people who live with chronic illness around career success, I find that the fear of “failure” is very real, since they’ve seen that life doesn’t always work out as you wish.

    I like what one person, wrote, “what does perfect look like for you?” and I’d add to it, “then notice what possiblities open for you when you ask that question”.

  21. A real lesson of wisdom!!!

    Thanks a lot for make me think again about the intuitions I had end the mistakes I make.

  22. Thanks for this very practical spin on perfectionism, Pam!

    I also think it’s important to define and describe exactly what “perfect” looks like for you in any given situation.

    That way you at least know what you’re striving for — otherwise, you will be in never-ending pursuit of some elusive idea of perfection.

  23. Jorge Diaz Tambley says:

    Good article. Sometimes we end up worrying about what doesn’t matter.

    We’re waiting for your book.


  24. Lilian says:

    Thank you for this post! It reminds me that “quickly learning” is the most important thing and that we must take action fastly enough to gain some ground and capitalize.

  25. This was fantastic and so true. I’m often teased for jumping in, going hell for leather (insert your favorite cliche here).

    Thing is, the only way to get good at something is to charge in and start racking up the mistakes.

    Great article!

  26. jhong says:

    I like your blog so much!!! It is very informative and I am learning a lot. Thanks thanks!!!

  27. Cynthia says:

    For so many years, being a perfectionist was something that I was proud of. Lately I have been noticing how being a perfectionist seriously limits me from doing things that I am not 100% sure I can do. This post came at the perfect time and summarized what I have been feeling. Cheers!

  28. Ramit Sethi says:

    Pam! Thanks for the kind words. You really hit it on the head when you said, “Fail fast.” That’s something I learned from my mentors here, and most of the startups I know in Silicon Valley do the same thing:

    Whether you’re going to succeed or fail, do it in small chunks and find out fast. Life is too short to work on something that’s not going to help you achieve your goals.

  29. Carla Golden says:

    I so relate to this! All my life I have been a perfectionist. It has often made me miserable and kept me awake at night. I now call myself a “recovering perfectionist”. I’m working at changing and I have gotten better–thank goodness!

    • Emily Rose says:

      I like that “recovering perfectionist” – I have OCD and perfectionism has been a major struggle for me, for a while I actively let things get dirty/messy and now I am not as crazy about things being perfect, but I do still have my OCD tendencies but I am not as hung-up on them as I used to be.

  30. Aaron K says:

    Hi Pam, I was sitting at work in my soul destroying cubicle and your email with this post in just came through. Thank you!

    This post really hits home with me as I am one of those perfectionists, who at the same time is a “loser”. Due to my perfectionism, time and time again I’ve stopped before I even really get started, and if I do start it’s not hard to derail me.

    I’m on a cusp at the moment, close to leaving my career behind and making a new trail for myself (One I can’t predict the outcome of), and posts like this truly help.


  31. Great Post Pam!
    A friend at work recently made the following comment to me about perfectionism, “Don’t let getting it done right get in the way of getting it done.” It’s another way of saying, sometimes you have to not sweat about the small stuff.