I’ve been putting this article off for weeks.
The irony of it didn’t hit me until Monday.
I wanted my piece about battling perfectionism to be perfect, but I logically knew I couldn’t make anything perfect. So I found myself in a state of flux, shuffling things around to avoid writing this because I doubted my ability to do it justice.
My experience isn’t unique. All across the millennial generation, perfectionism scores are up -- by a significant margin -- compared to previous generations.
And it’s a likewise significant problem.
Because perfectionism isn’t a bullet point of a killer resume: it’s a trap. One that leaves your online courses sitting in draft mode, keeps you from selling memberships because the program isn’t quite ‘right’ yet, and holds you back from your goals.
It also correlates with major depressive disorder, chronic fatigue, a loss of adaptability, and a diminished problem-solving capacity, among many other harrowing things.
We aren’t going to fix perfectionism today. I’m not a mental health professional, and I won’t pretend I can lead you out of an affliction I haven’t cured for myself.
But for me, understanding where something fits in the logical world gives me the power to change it.
So if you’re the same, this article is (almost) perfect for you.
Let’s get started. What is perfectionism, how does it manifest in entrepreneurs, and how do you move on in spite of it?
What is perfectionism in entrepreneurs?
By definition, perfectionism is the desire and drive to perform flawlessly.
For small business owners and entrepreneurs, it means juggling every aspect of a business -- marketing, sales, customer service, operations, and more -- without any hiccups.
And on the whole, we’re an optimistic bunch about it. The optimism index for small business owners -- that’s how well people think their current business situation is going and how well it’ll perform over time -- is at a record high.
Which is a great thing, because higher levels of optimism are thought to promote healthier lifestyles and result in stronger mental and physical well-being.
That’s not all optimism can do, either.
In the same research report that correlated optimism with healthier lifestyles, scientists seem to suggest that optimism can negate many of the pitfalls of perfectionism, explaining:
“...it is thought that optimism facilitates adaptive behaviors and cognitive responses that consent negative information to be elaborated more efficiently and that are associated with greater flexibility and problem-solving capacity.”
So how can perfectionism be so prevalent that some people are calling it an epidemic, while optimism, seemingly the cure, is at its highest in small business owners?
Easy: because we’re optimistic that if we sacrifice enough -- even if we hit burn out -- we’ll perform as well as we want. We take less time off, skip more meals, put in more hours, and neglect more of our extracurricular life to make the hustle happen.
And unfortunately, all of those behaviors put us at an increased risk of the same things that perfectionism leaves you vulnerable to including but not limited to depression, anxiety, diminished self-worth, and addiction.
Which, if you recall from our article about impostor syndrome, are problems that already disproportionately impact entrepreneurs compared to the general population.
And like impostor syndrome, perfectionism wears many self-defeating faces.
But before we go any further, let’s clear something up about those faces. They’re all self-defeating. While perfectionism can result in positive outcomes, its benefits are vastly outweighed by the vulnerabilities it creates in the individual.
There is no such thing as healthy perfectionism.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Listen to the professional instead.
"People will make that claim [about healthy perfectionism],” says psychologist and professor Paul Hewitt, “And they'll just ignore the fairly large literature that says that it's a vulnerability factor for unipolar depression, anorexia, and suicide."
Hewitt isn’t just your garden-variety researcher, by the way.
In combination with his colleague Gordon Flett, Hewitt has spent two decades studying the links between perfectionism and mental health afflictions and developed the multidimensional perfectionism scale, seen below, used worldwide by other researchers.
So, with that necessary caveat out of the way, there are three faces of perfectionism developed under Hewitt’s system:
- Self-oriented perfectionists. If they had a catchphrase, it’d probably be, “I have to be perfect, I owe it to myself.”
- Other-oriented perfectionists. This type of perfectionism might be characterized by, “Everything and everyone must be perfect. If they aren’t, they’ve failed me.”
- Socially-prescribed perfectionists. Their mantra might sound more like, “They expect perfection. If I don’t deliver that, I’ve failed them.”
Like any generalization of human behavior, most of us have varying degrees of all forms of perfectionism, so if you see yourself in more than one of those faces, you’re not alone.
And, as you’ll see in our four tips and tricks for coping with perfectionism, you’re not facing an insurmountable barrier to starting or growing your online business.
You just need a little help. And that’s okay.
4 strategies to cope with perfectionism
In entrepreneurs, perfectionists are the creators who sit with their online courses waiting in draft mode, tweaking every piece of sales copy and lesson module until it’s “just so.”
And why shouldn’t you? For entrepreneurs, our work fulfills all but the physical tier of our fundamental needs.
When our work excels, it provides the income for our shelter, gives us belonging with our customers, builds our self-esteem and industry authority, and provides an outlet for our creativity.
But when it doesn’t, it threatens all the above.
(Which is one of the many reasons we recommend taking your first side-hustle slow.)
Most perfectionists -- self-included -- know that perfection isn’t possible. We talk about striving to meet an ever-moving goal post, saying that with every project, we’ll get that much closer to perfection.
We know we won’t get there, but it’s worth pursuing all the same, right?
Unfortunately, when the goal post is too far for us to ever meet, we’re not striving towards greatness -- if anything, many of us struggle with procrastination (see the introduction) because of our all-or-nothing approach.
But there is a way to translate this innate drive for greatness into results and it starts with accepting a goal post you can actually reach.
#1. Aim for done, not perfect.
This comic summarizes this tip pretty succinctly.
But if you prefer the tl;dr version, here it is:
I used to spend a week on a single article. I’d agonize over every word choice, refusing to accept anything less than flawless copy until, frustrated and well-past my deadlines, I’d turn over something that I hated.
It put my career as a writer off to a bad start. I spent so much time trying to be perfect that I quickly ran out of the funds to be a writer and needed another source of income to make ends meet.
If it sounds like a common story, that’s because it is. 29% of startups -- businesses not unlike your own -- fold because they run out of funding before they can get a foothold.
For every day you spend staring down your work like an old Clint Eastwood movie, disdainful and doubtful, your business inches that much closer to the wrong side of the profit margin.
Why? Because you’re not seeing any returns on your investment yet, and however amazing your product may be when you release it, the work is far from over. Marketing your online products is just as important, if not sometimes more so, as creating it.
So if you find yourself up against a draft that you’re afraid to release because you don’t think it’s perfect yet, remember this maxim:
Done is better than perfect.
Not everything you create will be Pulitzer-worthy.
And that’s okay. That’s how you learn and get better.
So aim to finish.
And if you’re struggling to finish, don’t be afraid to get a helping hand.
#2. Be accountable to someone else.
Being your own boss is a dream for many, but it can be as freeing as it is paralytic. Not having someone else to answer to when you miss your deadlines means having no sense of accountability.
The research backs him up, too.
The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) found that you have a 65% chance of meeting your goals if you make yourself accountable to someone else.
Your chances of success go up to 95% if you have an appointment with that person you’ve committed to, as well.
Does this sound an awful lot like having a boss? It is, in a sense. But that’s not so different than the relationship that you’ll have with your customer (if you want to keep customers over the long haul, anyway).
So grab a friend, a mentor, or a customer and make a commitment to them. Then, set a date to review how far you’ve come in that commitment.
It’s a small step, but it can be surprisingly impactful. The same is true for our next tip.