Perfectionism: Is It Ruining You and Your Career?

The Plateau Effect
Source: Bob Sullivan
The Plateau Effect

Is perfectionism all it's cracked up to be? Maybe not, according to a work hitting bookstores this week.

"The Plateau Effect: Getting From Stuck to Success" explores what causes people to "get used" to things and quit striving to max their potential and happiness. It was authored by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, two entrepreneurial analysts with forty years of experience between them researching, writing, and analyzing systems and human nature.

Bob Sullivan is an investigative journalist and the bestselling author of "Gotcha Capitalism" and "Stop Getting Ripped Off." He lives in Seattle, Washington. Hugh Thompson is a mathematics and computer science professor and internationally acclaimed speaker. He lives in Los Gatos, California.

An excerpt from the book follows .....


The Third Action...Or Blowing Away the Dull Fog of Perfectionism

One more story of a classroom prank pulled by the teacher is in order. Bob, more than a decade ago, was teaching junior-level editing at the prestigious University of Missouri Journalism School.

You could say Bob totally freaked out his students. He might have gotten himself into some hot water with the administration, too, if any of the students blabbed about it. There he was, telling these future Bob Woodwards and Katie Courics something they'd never heard before, and something they really didn't want to hear.

The Plateau Effect Authors: Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson
Source: Bob Sullivan
The Plateau Effect Authors: Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson

"What's the most important task of a newspaper editor every day?" he asked them and then began logging their answers on a chalkboard.

They treated every class like a press conference. He loved that. Answers were shouted with abandon.

"To break news stories."

"To get everything right, to be accurate."

"To be fair."

And, since they had been focusing on copy editing in recent classes...

"To make sure there are no typos."

Through each answer he drew a line.

"Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong," he said.

They shouted a few more guesses. He shot those down, too. Finally, when their guesses were exhausted, he gave his answer.

"It's simple. It says it right here on the front page." He then picked up the newspaper, and pointed to a small word under the masthead. It said simply, "Daily."

They were completely confused. Exactly the plan.

"Daily. It means you promise this paper will be there every morning at 6 a.m. when people wake up. Daily. That's the biggest and first promise you make to readers. That's the one thing you can't compromise. And if any of these other things get in the way of that," he said, and pointed to their rejected answers, "they have to go."

Anticipating their next question, he continued.

"And yes, that means some nights -- in fact, many nights -- you will knowingly send the paper out the door with mistakes. You want to minimize them. You want them to be small mistakes. But there will come a time -- many times -- when you will have to pick between "daily" and "perfect," and every time, you must pick "daily."

As he expected, the students now thought that Bob was the new Richard Nixon, and they were going to expose "Mistake-gate." These bright young 20-year-olds spent most of their time in the journalism program learning about First Amendment law, Marshall McLuhan, and hidden biases in journalism, and how they were going to change it all.

He was giving them a much more "earthy" lesson. They didn't like it.

"Look, it doesn't say, 'Daily, except when we have to go back and re-edit a few stories,' or 'Daily, except when our basketball writer thinks he has a good scoop so we waited and waited and now, sorry, there's no paper.' It says daily."

Then, he made his final point. "And so, your job as a journalist is this: You are not supposed to put out the best paper you can put out. You are supposed to put out the best paper you can in the time you have. There's a big difference."

The argument continued for the rest of the class period. He didn't convince a single student, but before the semester was over, not one had failed to see his point. They had learned it all first hand.

These bright kids were part of a special program that took them from this editing class right to a copy-editing job at the Missourian newspaper, a for-profit rag owned by the school. Very soon, they would be on the front lines of daily paper, jamming to send the cameraready pages to the printer by midnight, and they were in for a shock.

No matter how well you have paid attention, no matter how agile you remain, as midnight approaches it is still shockingly difficult to keep on applying your judgment in real time.

Perhaps the most insidious of all human imperfections often lies hidden in the weeds most of our lives. But it rears its ugly head and screeches for our attention in an environment of intense deadlines. It kills all learning, and dooms us to a life of plateaus: the desire to be perfect.

Can one negative comment from your boss or mother-in-law throw you into a tailspin?

Do typos in e-mails, or sloppy grammar in speech, bother you so much that you can't even see or hear the meaning of the words being used? Do the words "good enough," make you cringe?

Then you're are likely engaging in a form of self-torture that many psychologists now recognize as a modern-day epidemic – part obsessive-compulsive disorder, part overbearing superego, part digital-age narcissistic nightmare, and nearly always on the edge of miserable.

You are a slave of success but focused on failure. Some therapists will tell you that you're doomed to a life of self-doubt and depression.

Perfectionism is at an all-time high. Gordon L. Flett, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, says more than 50 percent of today's Western school-aged children exhibit the perfectionist traits hinted at above. And most high achiever women suffer from some form of it.

"(If) we rounded up 100 creative, career-oriented women, it is likely that perfectionism would be rampant, especially if we measure the pressure to be perfect that we have called socially prescribed perfectionism, and the need to seem perfect when presenting the self in public," Flett told us during a summer Sunday morning e-mail chat. Even though his morning coffee had yet to kick in (he was sure to tell us that), he made nary a typo during our extended electronic dialog. Our highly knowledgeable society produces this ugly byproduct – rather than seeing people's achievements holistically, we live in an era of rampant deconstructionism. We break things into little pieces, finding more and more ways to "improve," each piece. Everything deserves criticism. How dare your eyebrows be so far apart/so close together! Whole milk in your latte? That's nuts. And it's simply indefensible that you haven't laser whitened those teeth yet.

Women are particularly susceptible, of course – just look at the cover of magazines on display near any supermarket checkout counter and you can see the punishment for being less than perfect in public. That message is internalized at a very young age.

"We know the immediate and widespread reaction that follows when a major celebrity does something wrong. So … people can see the price that is paid for making mistakes in public," Flett says.

Flett is perhaps the world's leading researcher on the subject, though he would object to that style of ranking. For him and other researchers, all perfectionism in not the same – and of course, depending on the meaning you ascribe the word, all perfection-seeking behavior is not bad. He offers three types of negative perfectionists.

*Self-oriented (those who expect perfection of themselves)

*Other-oriented (those who demand perfection from others)

* Socially prescribed perfectionists (those who think others expect perfection from them)

Perfectionists often manifest their condition in one of three ways: the self-oriented have an irritating self-promotion style, which involves constant attempts to impress others by bragging or displaying their work publicly in an endless quest for compliments; the otheroriented gyrate madly to avoid situations that might reveal imperfections; and the socially prescribed have a tendency to hide problems and an inability to admit failure.

The most important, concept that will serve as your antidote to the plateau of perfectionism: satisficing, a combination of the words satisfactory and suffice. With every task you undertake – raising children, painting a Starbucks window, writing ad copy, making dinner – your goal should be to do satisfactory work that is satisfying to you and its consumers, but at the same time is just enough to be sufficient. Satisficing takes much more into consideration than results: it weighs equally the pain and the process that are required to achieve a result.

Search costs, for example: You might want to make the best salsa you've ever eaten, but that would require acquisition of the freshest vegetables. If the farmer's market doesn't open until tomorrow morning, and the guests are coming tonight, then you'll have to do with the more pedestrian tomatoes from the corner grocery store. Modern economists and behaviorists sometimes call this more realistic decision-making process "bounded rationality" -- because a "fully rational" decision-making process which consider all options is impossible in the real world, decision makers simplify by self-limiting, or creating a boundary around, their options.

We just call it one of the keys to breaking through your plateaus.

Excerpt from THE PLATEAU EFFECT © 2013 by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson. Published by Dutton, A Member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.