Archive for July 2012

Why perfectionism makes you far from perfect

July 18, 2012

What would you say was your worst fault?
I’m a bit of a perfectionist…

The interview cliché is toe-curling because perfectionism isn’t actually a fault, right? Why wouldn’t an employer want someone who pushes themselves hard to get the job done to their own high standards? This is why “admitting” to perfectionism in an interview hasn’t worked for a long time.

But lately I’ve realised that contrary to conventional wisdom, perfectionism can be a fault after all.

I’m a freelancer, currently working on the project from hell. Obviously I didn’t know it was the project from hell when I started it. I looked at the project schedule, planned my work to meet the deadlines and got going. I turned in work as I did it, had it checked by the people in charge of the relevant project area and just kept going until I’d done everything. The work was very stressful for various reasons, but things were basically going OK.

And then – then the head honcho, the person theoretically in charge of the whole project, stepped in. She was unhappy with my work. She was unhappy with everybody’s work. She complained to my line manager. Countless tasks which had been finished and checked weeks previously were checked again and pronounced wanting. Jobs that I’d done had to be re-done. Then other people became unhappy with what she was demanding, which meant that most of the re-done jobs had to be re-re-done.

Her insistence on picking at tiny details, on raising unnecessary queries, on requiring people to re-do work that was finished long ago, pushed the project past the soft deadline. Then it pushed us past the hard deadline. People have gone on holiday and come back since she started picking at details. People have left the company since she started picking. She’s still picking. And I have literally no way of knowing when (or if) she’ll stop. I’ve now re-done some of my tasks on this project ten or eleven times, and I think others are in the same boat.

My goal when I started work was to do the best job possible before my deadline. Once the head honcho appeared and started picking at things I thought were done and dusted, my goal changed and I simply tried to get everything re-done to her new specifications as fast as possible in an attempt to prevent her from pushing us past the project deadline. But my tactic failed, she pushed us past the deadline anyway, and now I’m focused on how I personally can extricate myself from this project so that I can personally have some closure. This may involve breaking my contract and leaving before the project is finished. Because, as I said, I have no idea of knowing when (or if) it will be finished. The agency I’m working for didn’t budget for having to do the same job up to ten times in ten slightly different ways, so they’re over budget and people are getting increasingly stressed out.

This type of perfectionism isn’t about holding yourself and others to high standards and thereby achieving excellence. It’s about turning finished work into unfinished work into work that may never be finished. It’s not about turning good into excellent. It’s about turning good into never-done. It’s toxic because it makes others become thoroughly sick of the work they once took pride in, and because it destroys the trust that helps a project to happen. If you prioritise perfection to the point where you completely ignore schedules and deadlines, how can people trust you to lead a project to completion? And why should they get their own work done on time, when getting it done on time simply means you’ll give them a few weeks or months to forget about it before forcing them to do it again? And again? And again?

I realise that some of this person’s bad behaviour is not down to perfectionism. It’s down to the fact that she let a large team get nine-tenths of the way through a big project before popping up and causing problems. In the meantime, we were lulled into thinking she was a hands-off boss who would simply sign everything off at the end and take most of the credit.

But her perfectionism is at fault too. I see a project as having three sides: timescales, morale and quality. If you prioritise perfection and don’t care about anything else, you’re going to miss your deadlines and alienate your team. You’re going to keep draining everybody else’s energy and motivation. You’re taking a lot from other people and giving back nothing but criticism, without even helping to deliver a finished project. That’s why I think it’s time to call out self-declared perfectionists, when the power balance allows. If perfectionism by its very nature means prioritising “high standards” over equally important aspects of your work, do you have safeguards in place to limit the potentially damaging consequences of your behaviour?

Coming out

July 3, 2012

This tweet about coming out as gay made me feel nostalgic. I kind of miss the days when if a friend solemnly announced they had something to tell you, the “news” was almost always that they were gay. At one point in my life, I self-defined as gay and so did most of my friends. But most of us were also in the closet and the process of all of us coming out to each other seemed to go on for ever. Of course, most of us already knew or guessed about most of the others, but this didn’t speed the process up one whit. (I suspect this is because we all secretly wanted to maximise the drama-llamas.)

But now? Most of my friends self-define as heterosexual or bisexual, and most of us are in heterosexual relationships (including me). And the big “I’ve got some news” conversation is about pregnancy, not sexuality. As with the gay thing, it’s usually obvious already but you have to spend even longer pretending not to know because of the whole “don’t tell anybody until after your three-month scan” thing (in which “anybody” is defined as “people you’re not really close to”).

I miss the days when I pretended not to notice Natalie Imbruglia posters and dissertations on Phallic Imagery in Old Norse Literature and k.d. lang albums and copies of Boyz and the Pink Paper and DIVA and people sneaking out of each other’s flats in the early hours. Now I have to pretend not to notice my female friends turning down glasses of wine – “I’m driving” – and wearing that unmistakeable look of pregnancy: subdued, excited, vulnerable and worried all in one baggily-clothed package. The business of remembering to look surprised and trying to keep track of who knows is similar, but somehow it’s not as fun.

And now – now it’s even more boring, because so many people are on their second child. It’s basically the same news, about the same people, twice, and you still have to pretend not to know for ages. At the weekend a friend mentioned a heterosexual couple we both know, started to say something and stopped. That alone was enough to tell me that they have some news they’re sort-of-keeping-secret, and that the most likely news is that the wife is pregnant with her second child. The news was conveyed in that second or two of my friend opening her mouth and closing it again without even getting a sentence out.

So for me, one type of news-you-already-know has been replaced with an even more predictable type of news-you-already-know. But I’m happy to accept that news of pregnancies and second pregnancies will remain the main kind of news-I-already-know for the foreseeable future. In fact, I want to cling to that type of news-I-already-know for as long as possible.

You see, I know what comes after this. And so do you. Not so long ago, I overheard two pensioners on the bus, and the conversation went a lot like this.

“Oh, have you heard about Harry?”
“He’s dead. You mean Harry with the dog?”
“No, he’s fine. I mean Harry married to June.”
“No, I don’t know him.”
“You do. Harry who lives round the corner from me.”
“Oh, yeah, I do. So he’s dead, is he?”

You’ll notice that as with the crockery conversation I recorded some time ago, the person being “told” the news guessed it before correctly identifying what the other person was actually talking about. If you can confidently guess the news without even being on-the-ball enough to grasp the subject of the conversation, that’s likely to be because it’s your demographic’s brand of news-you-already-know. And I’m in no hurry to get there. So please, bring on the baby announcements. I’ll do my surprised face and drink your share of the wine.