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Coaching a Perfectionist

I love working with people who set the bar high, constantly driving for excellence. In the last few weeks I have coached three people who described themselves as perfectionists, all sharing an uncompromising drive for excellence. I feel a great buzz of excitement when working with people with a powerful vision of perfection. But this vision comes with a cost. The monumental task of achieving perfection weighs so heavily that the risk of not achieving perfection can lead to stress and inaction. When working with a perfectionist, what can a coach do?

When people say, “I’m a perfectionist” I tend to think of a very positive image of high levels of achievement leading to high levels of personal satisfaction. However, when considering the definition of ‘perfect’ and ‘perfectionist’, a different image comes to mind of a person carrying a great weight on their shoulders with the burden of expectation. Perfect can be defined as “excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement”, and a perfectionist as “a propensity to be displeased with anything that is not perfect or does not meet extremely high standards.”

perfectionist picture for Oct blog

The theory goes that perfectionists are likely to learn from an early age that what they achieved was valued. The more a person achieved, the more praise is given by parents, school teachers and in their early career. The drive for perfection can appear as a societal norm and reinforced by psychological and tangible rewards such as praise, prizes and bonuses. The result of this may be that a person’s self image is positive only when receiving approval from another person. Over time the desire for approval is internalised, and becomes inseparable from other motivators. Perfection is sought and reinforced to satisfy the internal desires in a spiral of escalating demands.

Considering wider thoughts on perfection, there is a popular quote attributed to Tim Duncan that says “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” What is interesting is that this does not say, “Good, better, perfect. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your best is perfect.”

I also wonder when something is good enough. Think about great painters and the artistic masterpieces that have been created. But, when does the artist know when to stop painting? When is the picture good enough to put the brush down and say, “completed”? If a great master sought perfection, the painting may never be finished as there could be the temptation to make one more brush stroke, and then another, and then another.

I remember a great holiday in Japan a few years ago and visiting the beautiful temples at Nikko. The 17th century shrines are covered in amazing ornate carvings, but some carved panels remained incomplete, because, as the tour guide told me “the devil lives in perfection”. I can understand the sentiment behind this; if you always strive for perfection, you are likely to be tormented by your internal demons and go mad trying to achieve the impossible.

So my admiration for perfectionists is tempered by a caution that this may be an overplayed strength. By this I mean it is a positive force for good and a drive for constant improvement, but it does not have an off switch, so leading to overdrive.

So when working with perfectionists what can a coach do?

The first step is to acknowledge and accept their drive. This is a strength and makes them who they are. So do not try to deny or stop this tendency. Explore the benefits and costs associated when this is in overdrive. If there is the tendency never to put down the paintbrush and say, “completed”, explore the question “when is it good enough?” Consider 80:20; 80% complete is good enough, as there is a disproportionate effort required to achieve the remaining 20%. Also, if someone is stuck with the fear of imperfection causing inaction, break things down into bite-sized chunks and ask, “what is the one thing you could do today to get this started?”

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