I Won't Back Down: How One Perfectionist Learned to Soften Her Edges
I’ve always been a perfectionist. In fifth grade, when I knew nine out of 10 answers on a science test, I tried to look up the answer for the tenth question before the teacher noticed. I ended up in the principal’s office, all because I couldn’t deal with getting a 90 per cent instead of 100 per cent.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have told me not to be “such a perfectionist.” I never thought much about what the word meant, except to occasionally wonder why it was always used as an insult.
Then I took my first DISC personality test.
The DISC is a system created by a psychologist called William Moulton Marston. It focuses mainly on figuring out how people interact with others, classifying behavior into four basic pattern categories.
Today, we call those patterns Drive, Influence, Support, and Clarity. Everyone shows all of these behaviors some of the time, but most of us lean toward one or two as default tendencies.
I won’t lie. Getting a result that I knew was correct was pretty satisfying. But I also knew there was more I could learn from those results.
What Is a Perfectionist?
Because Perfectionists lead with Clarity, the thing that most people notice about us first is that we’re precise, systematic and detail-oriented. (Case in point: I just spent five minutes checking several sources to find out if it’s “detail-oriented” or “detail oriented.”)
If I were Clarity alone, though, the DISC would call me an Analyst: passive, peaceful, and compliant. I’m a Perfectionist because I have too much Drive for those words to apply.
Drive means that it’s not enough for me to get the details right: I also have to make sure that the final product is unequivocally the best. People with strong Drive are assertive, competitive and product-focused.
Clarity and Drive together means that I have really high expectations. I know where I want to end up, and I make sure that everything gets done right along the way.
Most of the time, this is a good thing.
Perfectionists. We Get the Job Done.
The DISC describes the Perfectionist personality type as Ambitious, Driven, Disciplined, Resolute and Decisive. I’ve built my freelance career through these qualities, never turning in work unless I know it’s as good as it can be. The standards I set for myself have to be higher than those my clients set for me — it’s the way I make a good impression.
I also work with other people as a teacher and event organizer. My perfectionistic tendencies come through in those situations too.
Last summer, I volunteered in the kitchen at a family camp. Oatmeal kept getting stuck to the breakfast bowls, forcing dozens of re-washes and backing up the dish line. My inner Perfectionist took over, with all of its Clarity and Drive.
I pulled one of my fellow adult volunteers from the job of putting dishes away and handed her a scrubber. I showed the rinsers how to rinse and the stackers how to stack. When a bowl came out of the washer with oatmeal residue, I checked the stacking and re-coached the scrubbers.
In two days, we had zero bowls needing re-washes.
I knew that my high standards got us there, having watched the other shift leaders approach the issue with a “that’s okay” attitude.
I’m a perfectionist. “That’s okay” is not naturally in my vocabulary.
Turns out that sometimes I have to put it there.
There Are Drawbacks
The “high expectations” approach gets results. Just look at all the stories of inner city teachers who notice that low student achievement usually starts with low standards. They shift the paradigm, assigning piles of homework and expecting no less than excellence. The students deliver.
I’ve been devouring stories like these for years holding them up as evidence that all you need are high standards. That’s not all you need, though. You also need compassion. You also need understanding and the commitment to help people meet your standards.
Fun fact: 35 percent of executives fail because their standards are so high that no one can meet them.
OK, so that fact isn’t that much fun, but it’s definitely illuminating. These CEOs go around thinking that they’re pushing their people to do their best, but they don’t see their people nearly giving up every day because “nothing is ever good enough.”
There’s a hidden ingredient here that I didn’t know about for years, and it got in my way big-time. Without it, high expectations are self-defeating.
I’ve fallen into this trap myself. That’s right, not all of my perfectionist stories are about sparkling clean breakfast bowls and a self-satisfied team of dishwashers.
I can’t even count the number of submission deadlines I’ve missed because my story wasn’t “ready.” (Most of the time, they were fine and probably even good.) Or the disastrous dance classes that fell apart because I treated beginners like professionals.
I have an embarrassing number of memories that all fall along these lines. Fortunately, because I’m a perfectionist, I’ve learned from them and I don’t make the same mistakes anymore.
I’ve moved on to bigger and better mistakes. And so have my students and the people I work with.
Lesson Learned: People Are Human
High standards are important to have. Otherwise, we’d all be reading books that are “fine” and getting audited because our accountants submitted our tax returns as soon as they were “good enough.”
We Perfectionists run into trouble when we don’t know where to draw the line. Sometimes good enough is good enough — in a beginner dance class, for example, or a dishwashing team who aren’t going to finish the breakfast dishes in 35 minutes.
They’ll get the perfect oatmeal bowls, but they’ll never work any faster. And if I expect them to, I’m screwed. More importantly, they’ll walk away feeling incompetent and useless.
It can be hard for us as Perfectionists to admit it, but sometimes a great end result isn’t our end game. Sometimes our end game is a team of people who know they’re doing well and making progress. Sometimes it’s a class that bungled the assignment but felt good enough about their results that they’ll come back next week to try again.
I’m learning that if I really want to get the best possible results, I have to see people’s capabilities as they truly are, limitations and all. I’m learning not to see those limitations as deficiencies but as factors to consider. That goes for myself as well as for others.
In the process, I’m starting to set goals that are lofty, but not too lofty. Sometimes I do say “That’s okay” now… I usually follow it up with a tip for how to get better, though.
I am a perfectionist, after all.