Why Perfectionism is the Enemy of Getting Work Done

The first time I heard Brene Brown share her research around vulnerability, something changed for me and the way I view perfectionism and my work. She was reading Theodore Roosevelt’s exhortation, “it is not the critic who counts, but rather the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood” and “if he fails, he at least fails while daring greatly”.

For me, the visualization of that was profound. It reminded me of the many times in my professional career when I failed. I routinely would try to be someone that I wasn’t. Authenticity and vulnerability were not options in my business world. I would often think to myself  “I am in business, I don’t do vulnerability. That is something reserved for my personal life.”  I spent (*wasted) a lot of time persueing perfectionism. I was performing, perfecting and people pleasing. Those behaviors turned into anger and judgement most of the time.

Business, by definition, is uncertain, full of risk, and to be engaged meant I had to be emotionally exposed.  It meant I had to be vulnerable.

There is no way to opt out of vulnerability.

Vulnerability is simply defined as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.  The lesson here is, if we are alive and value relationships, vulnerability is NOT an option. It is a must. We do it all the time.  The question becomes, what do you do with it?  The more you are aware of what you do “to” your vulnerability, the more you can really make mindful conscious choices that move you along in your business life.

You either do it consciously or it does you.

What does vulnerability have to do with your work?

Perfectionism is a myth. To be all-knowing, bulletproof or failure proof is simply not achievable. You want innovation but you have no tolerance for risk or vulnerability and vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation and creativity.

A leader is anyone who holds him or herself responsible or accountable for finding potential in people. You are called upon to model the vulnerability we want to see in the people on our teams. If we want our teams to come to us and say “Hey, I don’t understand this and I want to, I need some help,” then we have to model that behavior. We have to model taking risks and failing.

Being an entrepreneur is all about vulnerability. When you meet the ones who are very successful, they usually live by the mantra to fail often and quickly. Get cleaned up, gather your education and move forward. That is why we are here.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation?

What does that mean? Ever been struck by an incredible idea and wanted to share it with your team. When the time comes to put it on the table you are stalled by the thought that half of the people in the room will think it is a stupid idea. The other half of them may have questions you didn’t think of and you wont know how to answer.

We live in a culture today where the one job of a leader is to cultivate engagement. Yet engagement is almost seen as uncool. The group is around the table, taking about your project. The manager is excited about it. And someone around the table says “This is awesome, I’m excited, I’d love to be responsible for a part of it”.

Invariably, two or three people in that room will turn and say, “What a suckup”. It’s almost like we are afraid to buy in because we would rather live disappointed than feel disappointed. The minute we are engaged we are invested  and we have something to loose.

If the idea you are pitching immediately makes sense to everyone, is it innovative?


You have to create a culture of engagement.

A culture where your work is humanized, where relationships are valued, where very explicitly, people feel safe making mistakes, asking for help and trying new things. Vulnerability is showing up and being “seen” (in the arena) . How can you show up and be seen when you are terrified by what other might think?  We live in a culture where shame is a management style, favoritism is rampant, gossip is out of control and perfectionism is curated. You can’t ask people to show up and be seen, if you don’t model it yourself.


What does all of that have to do with perfectionism?

When we allow perfectionism to “drive” us, shame is riding shotgun. Perfectionism is not about healthy striving, it is not about setting goals and being the best we can be, perfectionism is a cognitive behavioral process that say “If I look, work, and do everything perfect, I can avoid shame, ridicule and criticism”. It is a defense mechanism.  It is not a vehicle for success. It is a trigger we have to be aware of all the time, because it gets in the way of getting work done.

That ties back into failing fast

You have to be in the game. Showing up requires a lot of courage. Being “in the arena” is risky, and requires a hero’s level of bravery. Every day you have to decide if you are going to walk in to a situation and sound stupid, vulnerable or crazy, or are you just going to play it safe?

As dangerous and daunting (and scary) as vulnerability can be, I don’t believe it is ever as dangerous, daunting or scary as when we reflect back on moments in our lives where we wonder what would have happened if we simply didn’t show up.

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