Kicking the Perfection Addiction

pink floyd--the wall

From 1976-1986, I was the sole copy editor for every piece of printed product for Columbia Records. We’re talking album covers, inner sleeves, cassettes, 8-tracks (yes, I said 8-tracks), record labels—you name it. I worked for artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Tony Bennett.

This was a time before digital production, when we worked with manuscripts, typesetting, mechanical boards and film—all mostly manual, labor intensive and very, very expensive.

At that time, one mistake by me could cost the company millions in reprint costs. It could also cost me my job. I made it a point to never make mistakes. What a pressure it was to always be dead-on accurate. This was one place where perfectionism really counted, because the costs were so high.

Perfectionism has its place, but it can get out of hand and affect everything you do.

When the digital revolution happened in the music business, having technology at our fingertips made it much easier for perfection addiction to spread. First, art directors finessed their designs to the nth degree. Sometimes, we had to literally pry the projects out of their hands as we rushed past deadline dates. Then, the label heads got into the act, and more excruciating tweaking began.

Here’s the double-edged sword: The wonderful thing about technology is that you can make changes easily. The terrible thing about technology is that you can make changes easily.

When we are addicted to perfection, we tend to over-think, over-analyze and over-finesse just about everything. We exhaust ourselves. We’re always looking for that solid armor of security that blocks any criticism. When we spend too much time perfecting one thing, other tasks that need our attention suffer. Then we begin to feel overwhelmed and depressed.

We get a limited amount of energy every day—just so many hours. My advice is to be very selective about which projects you want to refine to perfection. Avoid being counterproductive by being a stickler about everything.

Some ways to kick the perfectionism habit:

Focus: begin with the end in mind. Envision the big picture—what’s the true value of the project you’re working on? Does it merit all the extra hours of striving for perfection?

Set a timer: a deadline can be a wonderful thing.

Step away: taking a breather can often give you a fresh perspective.

Collaborate: getting input from a colleague whom you respect may give you a whole other viewpoint (and may silence your inner critic).

Put up a stop sign: Know when enough is enough. Perfectionists always tend to over-deliver. “It’s not good enough” is definitely something many of us have learned somewhere along the way. (Maybe a parent who always expected A’s.)

You don’t have to hit a bull’s eye every time. No one does.

Even when you think you haven’t hit the bull’s eye, often others will think you have. I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought I’ve done a so-so job, and have received more praise than I ever expected. We already have too much work on our plates now, and there’s more ahead of us.

Giving yourself permission to be imperfect is giving yourself permission to be human. And that’s a great thing. We’re all vulnerable in one way or another, and it’s at these moments that people relate to us. And that’s better than perfect—that’s life.

Copyright 2013 Michelle Kerrigan

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