Our jobs will always ask for more. More time, more energy, and more commitment. That’s just the way life works—if we’re effective at what we do, people will seek us out. Work flows to capable people as dependably as water flows to low spots in a landscape. And today, it’s possible to work non-stop, answering emails on our phone during dinner with the family, responding to Slack messages on Saturday night, and spending a couple hours working each day during a beach vacation.
Letting go of perfectionism is a challenge, but like all bad habits, it’s easier to drop if we replace it with something else. An alternative to perfectionism is experimentalism—a posture of seeking truth through trial and error. The experimentalist expects lackluster results and even some outright failure, but they also improve over time because they’re analyzing their results. The perfectionist expects consistently stunning results and is usually disappointed. Perfectionism says, “This has to work.
Perfectionism is costly. In addition to driving us to work longer and harder than necessary, it also prevents us from being happy with our work once it’s done. “It could have been better,” we tell ourselves. If we never let ourselves feel good about our work, eventually our brains rebel. “Forget this—I’m not working this hard for no credit,” they complain. Perfection is an illusion. Give yourself credit for a job well done.
The customer/client/student has a problem, and they’ve brought that problem to us. We didn’t cause the problem, and it’s not our job to fix it, either. We get to say, if we want to, “it’s not my fault.” But the person who brought us the problem doesn’t care whose fault it is—they just need help. “It’s not my fault” lets us off the hook, but it doesn’t do anyone any good.
A couple years ago, I volunteered at MOMOM, an annual free dental clinic that takes place over a weekend and travels around the state of Missouri, serving the underserved. It was a massive operation—dozens of dentists working on the floor of a college basketball arena, doing everything from filling cavities to pulling multiple teeth, all for people who couldn't afford regular dental care. My job was escorting patients around the arena, and several were moved to tears after their procedures.