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For Perfectionists – Slow Down In Order To Speed Up

tortoise - slow downI am sure you have heard the Aesop’s fable of The Tortoise And The Hare. In it, the hare challenges any animal in a race and the tortoise accepts the challenge. The hare takes off from the start and runs very fast. Seeing his huge lead (a result) he slows down and even takes a nap. Meanwhile the tortoise just keeps moseying along at a steady pace (the process). When the hare awakens he sees that the tortoise is near the finish line. He sees how far behind he is (more result) and then races to catch up but it is too late. he feels dejected and embarrassed after losing (another result). The italicized parentheses are not part of the original fable. They are my insertions to make the analogy between hares and perfectionists.

Perfectionists are seldom happy with what they are doing. They are motivated mainly by the result of what they are doing. The win is central to a perfectionist’s life. The result could be a great mark on an exam, making a sale or impressing a boss at a meeting. If the perfectionist gets the result he wants, he is happy. However if he doesn’t, he is upset – often very upset.

Some people might say, “What’s wrong with that? That’s just how life is.” What is wrong with it is that people really don’t want perfection. Oh yes, I know people say they want perfection but many other things are more important to them than that – traits such as loyalty, honesty, effort and expertise, to name a few. And expertise is a lot different than perfection.

I want experts to help me with my health, financial and business concerns but I don’t need perfection. When they make a mistake, I want them to show concern, take responsibility for it and then make the effort to correct it.

In addition, another problem with aspiring for perfection is that results come too infrequently in life to make it a formula for happiness. Another way to say it is, if you are only happy when you win, you will have long droughts between happiness. And that pressure to succeed affects the perfectionist’s “insides” – mentally, emotionally and physically as the stress builds year after year from within. However new research has found that this can also affect his “outsides”, as it relates to productivity.

Many people may believe that liking what you are doing is nice but it doesn’t pay in the long run. It is just soft fluff. It is decorations on the cake but the cake is made by the people who get things done. This belief is not surprising because it has been around for a long time.

 Many people grew up with maxims like:

“Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing” – Vince Lombardi and his follow-up quote: “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?”

“Winning Takes Care Of Everything” – Tiger Woods 

“In one year, nobody remembers who came in second place” – author unknown          

Parents focus on marks, universities focus on your grades for entrance criteria, and employers focus on the “bottom line”. The focus in the past has often been on results.

But like the Berlin Wall, old beliefs must come down if they prove not to be true. People are beginning to see that a happy employee is also a more productive employee.  Companies like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks and Nordstrom are leading the way with giving their employees more power to make decisions, more profit sharing and benefits.

They are seeing more involved and satisfied employees who are motivated to serve their customers better, which is leading to a better bottom line.

In the non-fiction best seller, Good To Great, Jim Collins looks at which companies had the best business successes over the long term. In it he talks about the Hedgehog Concept as an understanding of what you can be the best at. One of the three key circles within this major concept is “doing what you are deeply passionate about”…

What? A respected business author talking about passion?

I did a double take. Hardly fluff if Jim Collins can back it up with facts as he did in the research for this book.

In this day and age, technological advances is slowly seeing computers replace some jobs that involve repetitive tasks like factory workers, cashiers, phone operators, clerical workers and farmers.

What does this mean for the future job market? It means that the new areas of growth will require the 3 Cs – creativity, customization and curation (the ability to sort through the massive amounts of data) to help people find the right problem to solve. The latter is one of the two long-standing skills that Daniel Pink says is changing in the new market trends. The other, he points out in his book, To Sell Is Human, is the ability to ask good questions (instead of the traditional method of answering questions) to help customers weave through a sea of overwhelming choices.

You need not be perfect. Clients like it when you creatively customize your service or product to their needs. However, most clients don’t even know exactly what they need so it would almost impossible to be perfect even if you tried. Secondly, customization is a work in progress, which counters the whole philosophy of perfectionism.

In the old marketplace and still in current work requiring repetitive tasks, focusing on results may have increased the yield. However in the new marketplace, focusing on results can actually hurt your results. Faster is not better. Slowing down and understanding the unique needs of your customer will bring more rewards in the long run. Being creative in customizing a unique solution to your customer’s needs will require that you focus on the process of what you do. And if the process is what you love to do it becomes a win-win proposition. You win because you are doing what you love and your customer wins because you are honing and creatively addressing her unique needs.

A note to all perfectionists – do it the tortoise’s way

Focus on the process. Do what you love. Take time to understand your client’s nuances and unique needs. Sift through the masses amount of information and creatively put together a creative solution and implement it.

Perfectionists will be happier, healthier and paradoxically more productive in the end – In the new marketplace, going slow will often paradoxically speed up results. (But don’t tell the perfectionist this last point – it may get him off his focus on the process and hurt his results.)

I would like to hear what you think about the pressure of trying to be perfect at work and your thoughts about hope in the new marketplace. Please leave your comments below to continue the discussion because I know that this blog post was far from perfect.

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