If you wanted to turn somebody into a neurotic perfectionist, you could do worse than have them follow the blueprint of my early adult life.
As a German lawyer with a Ph.D. who has worked on multi-million and -billion-dollar cases, fretting over minutia comes as natural to me as breathing. Throughout my education, I’ve received Pavlovian conditioning that rings the alarm every time I haven’t triple-checked everything.
Which, you know, wouldn’t be an issue if I had stayed in either law or academia. In both of these professions, perfectionism can be useful. You don’t want to lose your client a bunch of money (and get some real-life experience with the extent of your attorney liability insurance) because you messed up a deadline. Or ruin your academic career over some embarrassing plagiarism accusations.
Unfortunately, I decided to become an entrepreneur. And, well, the last thing an entrepreneur needs is perfectionism.
Why should you stop being a perfectionist?
I was recently reminded of that again when I talked to one of the students in my course. This student, let’s call him Tom (not his real name) was about to launch a new product and talked about how perfectionism held him back from just putting it out there.
And boy, could my past self relate! It took me years to loosen up the conditioning I had previously developed. My lawyerly habit of carefully mincing my words made my early blogs yawn-inducing.
Wanting to do it right the first time often meant there was no first time. Perfectionism kept me from just trying something out and see what happens.
At that point, I hadn’t yet heard the advice of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman:
“If you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.”
However, at some point I realized that I had to change. Something that had been useful in one context was hindering me in another. And so I learned to press publish before I was ready. I learned to be okay with grammar mistakes in my writing (you can always fix it later). I learned to be okay with messing up.
In short, I learned how to embrace imperfection.
How did I do this, you might ask? Well, let me present you with...
The solution to all your troubles (well, some of them...)
What occurred to me is this: if you want to stop being a perfectionist, it helps to ask yourself:
Which is short for: “What would the Sex Pistols do?”
That sentence probably requires an explanation so here we go…
Long before I realized that they could help me overcome perfectionism, I fell in love with the British punk rock band The Sex Pistols at first sight (or, well, hear). I had learned classical music, taken piano lessons for over a decade, and played Bach and Chopin… and yet nothing had ever electrified me as much as first hearing their album, Nevermind the Bollocks.
I’m not the only one. People who know much, much more about music than I do—from Kurt Cobain to Noel Gallagher—have praised that album effusively.
As a teenager, I admired the Sex Pistols for their attitude. To just not give a damn about perfection and still record what is arguably the single most influential album ever.
Yeah, I do know the Beatles exist. But they didn’t bring the world’s most prestigious monarchy to the brink of crisis. They didn’t write, in the words of the Telegraph “the most controversial song in history.”
I dare you to show me a band that changed culture and music as much as the Sex Pistols with just one album and a career that lasted a grand total of 2.5 years. Go ahead. I’m still waiting…
I wanted to be like them. I wanted to use three chords and somehow still make it sound good. I wanted to create, without inhibition. I wanted to scream myself hoarse and break taboos that should be broken.
Instead, I became a lawyer. And my path to being a perfectionist was sealed.
How stop being a perfectionist by embracing your inner punk
However, many winters later (I had already taken up the entrepreneur mantle at this point) I realized the following:
If perfectionism is your damnation, a punk rock attitude is your liberation.
If you have gone too far into perfectionism or if your circumstances have changed in ways that make perfectionistic tendencies unhelpful, embrace your inner punk. Think like a member of the Sex Pistols.
If I recall correctly (and no, I’m not going to check this because hey, I’m embracing imperfection and besides, you know how to use google), they recorded Nevermind the Bollocks in 3 takes!
3 takes to create something that both The Time and the Rolling Stone included in their “best albums ever” list. (Yeah, I did research that one because I might be an academic with a punk rock attitude but I’m still an academic…)
If you find yourself stuck in perfectionistic thinking, do what I do and try to follow their example. Try to embrace the adage that done is better than perfect. Dare to suck!
Personally, I still get lost in unnecessary research. I still often take too long to hit publish. I still don’t ship as fast as I could. But you know what? Just like my student Tom, I do hit publish eventually.
The great thing about imperfectionism is that you can do it imperfectly... and it still works. And that, my friend, is how you stop being such a damn perfectionist!
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