Breaking Up with Perfectionism (Transcript)

Breaking Up with Perfectionism

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

[00:00:00] Eric Best:
Diving attracts perfectionists.

[00:00:02] Adam Grant:
This is Eric Best, the longtime diving coach at Michigan State University. He's been the Big 10 coach of the year. And he's now coaching multiple Olympic medalists at Indiana.

[00:00:14] Eric Best:
There is this one guy that I coach, he wanted everything to be so perfect. There's this thing in diving called a balk. You start your motion to do the dive and then you stop before you complete the die. Well, he had a lot of problems with balking. I would spend hours and hours watching this guy waste a lot of his practice time. Yes. I am talking about Adam Grant.

[00:00:41] Adam Grant:
[Laughs] Guilty as charged. I never thought about it as an expression of perfectionism.

[00:00:45] Eric Best:
Oh yeah.

Adam Grant:
But you're right.

[00:00:48] Eric Best:
You would do that on the most basic dive. I look at the balk as a manifestation of "everything is not perfect up to this point. So I can't do the perfect dive from here. And because I can't do the perfect dive from here, I'm going to restart." Well, guess what folks, you can't restart diving and you can't restart life.

[00:01:11] Adam Grant:
Diving exposed my perfectionism. But it also taught me to manage it. I learned that instead of aiming for perfection, it's healthier and more effective to strive for excellence.


I'm Adam Grant. And this is WorkLife my podcast with the TED Audio Collective. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I take you inside the minds of fascinating people to help us rethink how we work, lead, and live. Today: the psychology of perfectionism and how to overcome it. Thanks to ServiceNow for sponsoring this episode.

[00:01:59] Adam Grant:
Growing up my mom told me that no matter what grade I got in school, as long as I did my best, she would be proud of me. And then she added. But if you didn't get an A, I'll know, you didn't do your best. It made it clear that I shouldn't settle for anything less than perfect striving to do your best as a good thing.In many jobs, success depends on avoiding errors. You probably wouldn't want a surgeon or a pilot who didn't mind making mistakes, but there's a big difference between valuing excellence and being a perfectionist. Striving for excellence is pursuing high standards of quality. Perfectionism is very different, and I'm not talking about that time in a job interview when you said my
"greatest weakness is that I am too much of a perfectionist." We're going to talk about this, like a true perfectionist. With precision.

[00:02:57] Tom Curran:
Perfectionism at root is a need and a requirement to be perfect, because ultimately we feel that we're flawed that we're defective and that there's something imperfect about us that needs to be repaired. And it's that deficit thinking that really drives perfectionism.

[00:03:14] Adam Grant:
Thomas Curran is a psychologist at the London School of Economics and an expert on perfectionism. He and his team have synthesized decades of data on perfectionism to reveal some surprising insights.

[00:03:25] Tom Curran:
The way that perfectionists are built, it makes us very sensitive and vulnerable to those setbacks and failures, which occur all the time, because it's a threat to that idealized version of who we want to be and who we think we should be. Of course, that creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of worry and stops us taking risks, stop us just pushing ourselves forward. And so they're very careful about what situations they do and don't place themselves in and, and what things they do and don't push themselves for. And as a consequence, they don't necessarily succeed in the long run.

[00:03:54] Adam Grant:
I was a diver. My third year I got an award from my team. It was the "If Only" award. There was like a little cartoon drawing of me is saying if only I had pointed my left pinky toe, I would've gotten an eight and a half instead of an eight. And it was maddening. I would not leave the pool because I always felt like there was something I could have improved and I kind of drove myself insane.

[00:04:15] Tom Curran:
Yeah. It's probably one of the few things in life where perfection does actually have a definition, i.e. like, this is the perfect 10. When you drive yourself mad trying to achieve something, that really is just simply impossible.

[00:04:26] Adam Grant:
I never got a 10 because you have to be an Olympic caliber diver to get them. And I wasn't. And I always felt like there was this unreachable standard of perfection and no matter how hard I worked and how much I improved, I'd never got anywhere.

[00:04:40] Tom Curran:
Yeah you see a lot of self-criticism that's for sure.

[00:04:42] Adam Grant:
And that isn't unique to diving.

[00:04:44] Tom Curran:
After my lectures. You'd probably see me extremely anxious about saying the right thing or making the point in the most comprehensive and adequate way. And then when I'm outside of the lecture hall berating myself because I said something silly, or I didn't say something, right, I couldn't answer a question a hundred percent perfectly. When I've done something well, there's not a great deal of happiness. It's more. "Thank goodness. I didn't screw up."

[00:05:10] Adam Grant:
Are you saying you're a perfectionist

[00:05:12] Tom Curran:
A hundred percent, 110%, definitely.

[00:05:17] Adam Grant:
Along with berating themselves, perfectionists waste a lot of time on details that don't really matter.

[00:05:23] Tom Curran:
If there was a pie chart of my life, the shaded part that says tinkering and perfecting would be by far the largest.

[00:05:28] Adam Grant:
When did you first realize you were a perfectionist

[00:05:31] Tom Curran:
Working in academia, as you know, we're taught to value and almost celebrate the takedown, the criticism. You know, you're going to get smacked down a lot, unfortunately. And I went to Australia right in my career to do a post-doc and that was a really competitive environment. And I just put too much pressure on myself. I thought that was constantly failing. I saw other people around me, who I thought were doing far better, and I felt I needed to overcompensate work harder to keep up and I got very exhausted, felt very bad. That was the point at which I knew that perfectionism was a problem in my life.

[00:06:07] Adam Grant:
Wow. Curran, the world expert on perfectionism, I would think in some ways that means you would be better at managing it than anyone else.

[00:06:17] Tom Curran:
So I'm, I'm better now. But the first thing to say, it's really difficult because as well as being a personality trait, perfection is all around us. And so it's also a cultural phenomenon too. So it's really difficult to step off the treadmill when everyone else is running the same race. It's kind of, the favorite flaw, it's something that we value in this kind of culture. You know, when you see perfection all around you and you think everybody else is perfect, then of course, you're going to think perfections desirable, obtainable.

[00:06:46] Adam Grant:
You have tracked changes in perfectionism over time. What did you find?

[00:06:51] Tom Curran:
I've found that perceptions of self perfection-- "I need to be perfect"--those are increasing over time among young people. The need for other people to be perfect is also increasing.

[00:07:01] Adam Grant:
And you can see it in surveys of college students done from 1989 to 2016.

[00:07:06] Tom Curran:
What I think is most important is the social element, the sense that other people expect me to be perfect, that's really increasing quite rapidly at almost a 10% increase. And that's the one that should really worry us the most because that's the element of perfectionism that's also highly correlated with problematic psychological outcomes, things like depression.

[00:07:27] Adam Grant:
Do you think it's also rising among people who are adults?

[00:07:30] Tom Curran:
Absolutely. Unlike other personality, characteristics, it doesn't seem to ameliorate or repair itself as people get older. If anything is quite the opposite. As we set higher goals for ourself and fail to meet them, we push us even harder. And overcompensation. And what we've seen is that people will actually get more angry, anxious, and irritable as they get older. And these young people are also going to be parents themselves. We know from the literature that perfectionistic parents raised perfectionistic children.

[00:07:55] Adam Grant:
Thanks mom. In his newest research, Thomas found that rising levels of parental pressure and criticism are major contributors to the increase in perfectionism among students.

[00:08:07] Tom Curran:
When you add it all together, these data suggests that not only will we see more infections in young people, but that high perfection, young people is going to carry through with them as they age, as they move into the workforce and beyond.

[00:08:20] Adam Grant:
Wow, what's going on in the world that's causing that?

[00:08:24] Tom Curran:
I think there's several factors. One of the things that often happens is we'll look at social media, parents or advertising. The fact that parents are becoming more expectant of children, particularly in school and universities and education is getting more competitive. We'll take things in isolation as if they're kind of unconnected interesting events. These are not unconnected events. They're all drawn together by a move and a shift in broader culture towards a market society, which has emphasis and things like competition, meritocracy, hard work. As the economy shifted. And as it's become a much tougher to move up, young people are find themselves moving backwards, whereas their parents could move up and did move up. But those pressures are still the same. There's a lot of pressure in social media. Mostly driven by the profit motive because obviously making people feel miserable about themselves is really profitable because if you can punch holes in people's lives, they'll purchase things to try to fill them that's classic advertising tactics. And so all of these things, undoubtedly contributing can be linked back to what we value as a society and what our economy needs to fry.

[00:09:35] Adam Grant:
It seems like in some ways, perfectionism is almost over determined. Any of these factors alone could be contributing, but we've got a bit of a perfect storm going here.

[00:09:43] Tom Curran:
That's exactly it.

Adam Grant:
[Laughter] I just called it a perfect storm. It's the best storm ever. It cannot be better.

[00:09:51] Tom Curran:
[Laughter] It really can't like if you look across the piece, young people these days and everyone they're bombarded with expectation that are in many cases, quite impossible, really. And we take on this sense that we're never enough.

[00:10:04] Tom Curran:
I think that's the way the world just is structured to make us feel uncertain, insecure, and, and to keep us working, they keep us consuming.

[00:10:11] Adam Grant:
There's been a discussion and some debate about whether there are multiple flavors of perfectionism. I think about the classic distinction between neurotic perfectionism and what was unfortunately called normal perfectionism. Do those distinctions stand up?

[00:10:27] Tom Curran:
In fact a very famous correctional psychologist said that perfectionism is an inherently impossible goal. Something that is inherently impossible cannot be held.

[00:10:42] Adam Grant:
Personally, I've found perfectionistic strivings of saying, "I want to make this as close to perfect as possible" more motivating and probably more constructive than perfectionistic concerns where I'm constantly worried that I'm going to fall short of perfect. I think you're saying that still both of those are probably not healthy.

[00:11:00] Tom Curran:
Nobody would ever argue, certainly not me, that we shouldn't be trying to be more conscientious, more diligent, more flexible, persevere more, but it's very different to perfectionism. That's what I'm trying to make the links here between what's going on in broader culture, because that's where it starts. All of the perfectionism, that behavior that we see are ultimately involved in trying to repair what we think is defective. Once we view perfections of from this angle, it's really difficult to make a case that this is something that is in any way positive.

[00:11:33] Adam Grant:
You're reminding me of a meta-analysisthat my colleague, Dana Harari, published, showing that perfectionism predicted higher performance in school, but not in work

[00:11:42] Tom Curran:
When things are going well, perfectionism kind of keeps us ticking over and it's not overly problematic. It can spur high-performance under certain circumstances. It's something that could have performance benefits.

[00:11:57] Adam Grant:
Perfectionism could be useful on formulaic tasks. It might help you ACE a math test, but at work there's rarely one, right?

[00:12:08] Tom Curran:
Now as you get older, those performance outcomes start to become more subjective and based on other factors rather than the grade and the metric-- that's when things start to become difficult for perfectionists, that unknown is really scary because failure is so catastrophic for the sense of self and importantly, for the validation that they've received from other people, that's what holds them. In the world, it reinforces to them that actually they do matter when they think they don't.

[00:12:36] Adam Grant:
In diving, at the state championships my senior year, I missed my best dive and fell short of a goal I'd been pursuing since I was a freshman. I felt like I'd wasted four years of training and let my team down. So what did I do? I went right back to practice and exhausted myself, trying to fix that dive only now no one was watching.

[00:12:57] Tom Curran:
And that's where the burnout comes from. You know, it's that cycle of self-defeat that perfectionists engage in, and they're constantly hyper vigilant and wary about how other people are perceiving them and how they're performing.

[00:13:10] Tom Curran:
And that's a lot of mental energy expended, just trying to uphold an image that you want other people to see.

[00:13:16] Adam Grant:
One of the reasons that perfectionists are vulnerable to burnout is because they overdo it and they never want to let go. But on the other hand, you're saying that even if they can avoid that instinct, they're still likely to undermine themselves through self-handicapping and saying, "I don't want to know that I was not capable of doing this." So I might as well just not try that hard.

[00:13:35] Tom Curran:
And we see this a lot in our research. They hold off their effort after they failed the first time. They're just saving face. They're just basically saying "I can't fail at something I didn't try." And so that's not to say that they don't put in loads of effort. It's just to say that they're quite strategic about where that effort is placed. And it's often very inefficient. It's placed in areas where there's very high chance of success and away from areas where there's a very high chance of failure. So I was like, it doesn't make sense, but when you actually break it down and think about it, it makes perfect sense.

[00:14:06] Adam Grant:
Yeah, it does. Practice can make perfect, but it doesn't make new. It's really hard as a perfectionist to have a creative insight or a fresh approach to solving a problem when you're just repeating the same habits over and over again, trying to stamp the variation out of them and eliminate all the errors.

[00:14:25] Tom Curran:
I think it's not to say perfectionists can't learn to be these things, but creativity is such a difficult thing to break through when you have high levels of perfection.

[00:14:35] Adam Grant:
This is why I threw out over a hundred thousand words of my first draft of my first book. Like I spelled out the methods of every single study. I remember my agent telling me your academic colleagues won't even read this. It's too boring.

[00:14:49] Tom Curran:
If you can just sit comfortably with this idea that actually there is no rule book and you can take risks and you can try and be creative and it's not going to work every time and you are going to delete more than you're going to use, but it does really help to break through a sort of mindset which teaches you that you have to be perfect at all.

[00:15:12] Adam Grant:
Part of being a high achiever or a striver or a conscientious person is when you fail, you realize your technique is flawed and you try to improve the product or the task. Whereas a perfectionist, when they fail, they think it's themselves. That's flawed. I need to fix myself.

[00:15:28] Tom Curran:
Every piece of feedback is an indictment on the self. Life is one big court of appeal for our flaws. And when life is a big court of appeal for our flaws, then we're going to see our flaws in all the information that's around us. It's the way we interpret the things that happen to us.

[00:15:45] Adam Grant:
Okay. If you're a doctor or you're a pilot, you can not afford to be imperfect. I kind of want to go to the surgeon, or get on the airplane of a perfectionist don't I?

[00:15:57] Tom Curran:
No, there would be far too much worry and concern about what might happen in the worst case scenario for me to be comfortable with a perfectionist or a surgeon flying my plane or in charge of my surgery because of the anxiety that's invoked by that deficit thinking. "I can't screw up. I can't possibly fail." These people are diligent. They are meticulous and they're trained as such. That's why the process is so lengthy and so rigorous, but they're not perfectionists.

[00:16:27] Adam Grant:
So if you are a perfectionist, how do you break free from the rumination while still striving to do your best?

[00:16:36] Tom Curran:
I think it boils down to our relationship with failure. At the moment, failure is the great taboo. There are some very real pressures that we feel that create a sense that we must conceal our failure because whenever we push ourselves out there, society can often stump us down. We need to slow down. And we need to accept that we're going to fail and we're going to fail many, many times. You know, there's kind of fail better movement. It doesn't matter what you felt. Sitting comfortably with failure in this culture is really not an easy thing to do. It's a really brave thing to do, actually. It's so crucial that individually we're able to break down some of those tendencies, but also culturally we're placed in environments where people are able to accept and embrace flaws. And if we can get that right, then these sorts of issues that we're seeing will fade away. And then you'll begin to see that you can still have high standards and you can still shoot for really high goals, but you can do so without the emotional baggage, the cognitive baggage that comes with a perfectionistic tendencies, perfectionistic thinking. You can't allow failure to sit. You have to squash it with the iron fist of redemption. You have to kind of recycle it into growth.

[00:17:52] Adam Grant:
Sometimes growth is recognizing that it's time to move on from the domain that triggers your perfectionism in diving. After I hit a wall in college, I quit later. I found that in teaching research and writing, I put less pressure on myself. There wasn't one perfect way to deliver a class, design, and experiment or tell a story. But short of quitting your pursuit altogether there are important things you can do to counteract perfectionism. And there are steps workplaces can take to make it more acceptable, to be less than perfect. More on that after the break.


[00:21:38] Matt Mathesson:
Welcome everybody to the congregation. This is the church of fail.

[00:21:44] Adam Grant:
This is Matt Mathesson. Before he became a speaking and communications coach, he was a consultant at a social media agency, at least once a month, Matt would gather all their employees and welcome them to the church of fail, a special meeting where people volunteered to share their biggest work fails of the week.

[00:22:04] Matt Mathesson:
So I'm going to ask us to come up here one by one. There's three questions that you'll see in front of you. The first question, what did you feel. Number two, how did you cope with it? And then number three, what did you learn from it? And then once you finished, you're going to get a big round of applause and everybody else really, really celebrate what we're hearing here.

[00:22:25] Matt Mathesson:
Let's have a volunteer, if anybody would like to go.

[00:22:32] Alex Gonzalez:
I was hired to DJ a very early morning gig. I didn't write it in the calendar or anything. I just thought I would remember because it was literally the next day. And I missed the gig. I showed up maybe an hour later.

JoAnn DeLuna:
My first radio interview was 15 minutes long and it went really well. And then when it was over, I realized I hadn't pressed record.

[00:22:54] Alex Gonzalez:
First of all, I felt horrible. I've never missed a gig before. And what I did was I offered them a free gig for the next time they needed it in order to make up for the lost gig.

JoAnn DeLuna:
I instantly panicked and I felt really, really dumb. And I was so disappointed in myself, but I had to act quick. So I pressed record and I read it the interview by asking the guests to elaborate on the questions he had already answered.

[00:23:18] Alex Gonzalez:
I needed multiple locations to write down and remember, uh, what times my gigs were.

JoAnn DeLuna:
I learned to quadruple check that I'm actually recording. I also learned that this was a very common mistake when you're first starting off. So I didn't feel so bad.


[00:23:42] Adam Grant:
It almost sounds like a more useful version of a confessional.

[00:23:47] Matt Mathesson:
Absolutely. There's some people used to say they call it the failure confession session. It builds that empathic communication and we're in it together as well as being incredibly cathartic and adrenalin-fueling in a good way when you're in the middle of it.

[00:24:02] Adam Grant:
Almost sounds like fun.

[00:24:04] Matt Mathesson:
Honestly, we've had points where we've come out of our cheeks, you know, bright red from this, but also feeling really satisfied that there's a space where people can safely share these things that are nagging them. You have the very simple ones. Like I busted the photocopier or I missed a train or I missed a client deadline. I remember a colleague saying that she took a risk with a dress she wore to go see a client because she sewed a button and it went pop on the train.


[00:24:36] Matt Mathesson:
But then at the other end of the spectrum, you have some director level people from technology firms claim that they've neglected their family because the amount of time they spent at their desk.

[00:24:46] Adam Grant:
You might not have a Church of Fail–or a Synagogue of Fail, or a Mosque of Fail. But your workplace can still take steps to help people face their imperfections. In medicine for example, there are morbidity and mortality meetings that allow people to share their mistakes and identify areas for improvement. Confessing failures can help people learn to take them in stride.

[00:25:10] Matt Mathesson:
So one of the directors, I remember her sharing why the pitch had been lost. And then another opportunity was one not long afterwards. And he says, I can directly attribute vocalizing that, learning around why we lost that pitch for all services and what we got wrong to then bring that into the what was then a winning pitch for a different client after.

[00:25:33] Adam Grant:
What was it about vocalizing it that led to this growth or learning?

[00:25:38] Matt Mathesson:
It's that process of sharing something. There's a real visceral thing that happens in your body a lot more than if you just shared it in a one-to-one with somebody. Like you can remember that a lot more than if you just made a little note in your learning. And it's almost like giving people a tonic. Once you release something and you share it with other people, a lightness comes to it. You realize that maybe it's not quite such a catastrophic situation, as you saw. And over time doing that on a regular basis brings down that level of catastrophization, if you like, around mistakes and errors and these experiences that maybe feel more awkward to navigate than when the good times are rolling, as they were.

[00:26:18] Adam Grant:
Many leaders try to prevent errors by building cultures of perfectionism. Failure is an occasion for punishment; mistakes are a cause for firings. But research reveals that this approach is counterproductive. It doesn’t stop people from making mistakes. It leads them to hide their mistakes. You don’t want to penalize imperfection. You want to normalize communication about errors, so that they can be detected, analyzed, corrected, and eventually prevented.

[00:26:50] Matt Mathesson:
You could start small. Okay. And you can set the boundaries around the kind of fails. Okay. So let's just talk about day-to-day things or just what you feel comfortable sharing. Really the most important thing here is that the person who is running this leads by example, and you just be clear that there are going to be no repercussions for what gets shared here. But, you know, there might be discussions afterwards. It's not a case of, if you make a mistake and you share it in this forum, there are no consequences. So for [example, behavioral issues or breaches of contract, malicious intent, like this doesn't undo a disciplinary process or those kinds of things. And there's different levels here. When we share, when we normalize the language around these perceived mistakes, when we learn from each other, then that fosters a culture where people talk about this stuff. So, yes, nobody's perfect. And they shouldn't be expected to be perfect at work because we're not, we're just humans.

[00:27:48] Adam Grant:
It’s helpful to be part of a culture that accepts and even celebrates human fallibility. But sometimes that isn’t enough– you need strategies for dealing with perfectionism within yourself. Which is about normalizing your own mistakes and failures. Personally, I’ve found it helpful to adopt anti-perfectionism. I aim to fail a few times a year. Yep, I have a fail quota. What else would you expect a recovering perfectionist to do? I want to get as good as humanly possible–at failing. If I haven’t had at least three projects flop at the end of the year, I know I’ve just been repeating what I’m already good at and staying in my comfort zone. Having an article rejected, a study bomb, and a speech fall flat is a sign that I’m pushing myself to try new things. It also cushions the blow. When I crash and burn, I can check it off as one of my expected fails for the year. You need that outlet, especially if you’re used to measuring yourself against an impossible ideal.

[00:28:49] Jordan Olesnavich:
My teammates would say I was a total mental case.

[00:28:51] Adam Grant:
Meet Jordan Olesnavich. In college she was a standout diver.

[00:28:56] Jordan Olesnavich:
I don't like to try new things. I don't like to start anything as a beginner because I do not like to be a beginner. I like to just always be good at it. I think I am definitely a perfectionist.

[00:29:09] Adam Grant:
How do you know?

[00:29:10] Jordan Olesnavich:
Great question. For me? The biggest things are overthinking everything and then overthinking them again later that night or the next week. I don't know if starting gymnastics at such a young age turned me into a perfectionist or if my perfectionist tendencies kind of helped me gravitate toward the sport of gymnastics and then the sport of tennis.

[00:29:38] Adam Grant:
Halfway through college, Jordan ran into a big problem with her back one and a half.

[00:29:42] Jordan Olesnavich:
It was a dive that I had been doing for five years at this point. And it was just all of a sudden I had this huge mental block. My brain couldn't figure out how to do it. Couldn't think of how I ever did it.

[00:29:55] Adam Grant:
So you're standing backward on the board. You're supposed to do a back flip and then a dive. Correct. What happens instead?

[00:30:03] Jordan Olesnavich:
I would just jump backwards off the board. Sometimes I would maybe do a somersault, but never ending in the dive part. So we had lots of days, lots of practices where I'm just still trying to do one dive and then I would finally do it. And that'd be the end of practice.

[00:30:20] Adam Grant:
Was there a point when you thought about. Every day during that summer, you thought about quitting?

Jordan Olesnavich:
Every day for a whole summer.

[00:30:28] Adam Grant:
You thought about quitting every day for a whole summer?

[00:30:28] Jordan Olesnavich:
Yeha because I couldn't dive and my coaches and my team were relying on me to be able to do the things I was supposed to do. So I think it was just this terrible vicious cycle of guilt and needing to do it and then beating myself up. So yeah, I, I wanted to quit a lot. I cried a lot of tears in that pool and out of the pool.

[00:30:53] Adam Grant:
Luckily Jordan had an amazing coach who taught her to deal with it. The same coach who changed my life, Eric Best.

[00:31:02] Eric Best:
A lot of things I developed in my coaching were problems that I was trying to deal with to fix Adam So you were a great laboratory experiment for me. Thank you.

[00:31:13] Adam Grant:
We weren't the only perfectionist in the.

[00:31:17] Eric Best:
Yes, diving attracts perfectionists. You've got to keep them under control because perfectionists are the ones that are the most likely to burn themselves out.

Adam Grant:
I remember the feeling very well.

[00:31:28] Eric Best:
You're trying to make a dive better and you can't get yourself to make that change and you don't understand why you can't do it. And it just puts you down in a dark hole of despair. And then what happens is that you start doing everything else. And then you start believing that you can't do anything.

[00:31:45] Adam Grant:
Right. Eric taught us four key techniques for managing perfectionism. He anticipated much of what psychologists have discovered in the data. And those lessons have come in handy in my work life. They helped me avoid the mistakes I made in diving. First: recognize that excellence does not require perfection. Evidence shows that it's aiming high, not pursuing perfection, that gets results.

[00:32:11] Eric Best:
When you set goals for yourself, what you need to make sure that you understand is exactly what do you need to do to achieve those goals? One of my divers, she said, I want to be the state champion. Okay, great. How many points do you think you have to score to win the state championship meet? And she said, oh, I don't know. Probably about 450. The highest score was about 375, but it had gone as low as about 360. So now we know on average 370 has won the meet. And what it worked out to is that she had to score six and a halfs on her basic dives and five and a halfs on her, more complex, optional dives. Instead of thinking, oh, I have to achieve this unobtainable goal. And she said, and I remembered about our conversation if I can just return to my averages, I'll be okay.

[00:32:58] Adam Grant:
I love this strategy of just clarifying the goal, which then makes you realize perfect is not the target. And it's not even necessary, even

[00:33:05] Eric Best:
Though it is said to be the perfect 10 in judging, we remind the judges over and over again, that 10 is not perfect. 10 is the top of the scale and it's described as very good on one scale of judging and excellent in the other.

Adam Grant:
If you're in customer service, it's not realistic to shoot for a 100% satisfaction. You might aim for 90%. If you're a teacher, you don't need all your students to act. The goal is for them to reach a level of proficiency. And when I give a speech and the evaluations aren't perfect, I hear Eric's voice in my head.

[00:33:44] Eric Best:
You just want to be steady, just go in everyday and do what you can do.

[00:33:47] Adam Grant:
Second: measure your excellence in terms of your progress toward the goal. In my diving days, when I came out of the water, I would look to see if Eric was excited about my dive. The clearest signal: he had his arms up above his head in celebration. Jordan loved that too.

[00:34:05] Jordan Olesnavich:
Because he seen all of your dives. So if he's excited about it, it means that it was significantly better than others that you've done.

[00:34:14] Adam Grant:
Sometimes Eric would even say best ever. It may not have been the best, but it was my best, which convinced me that I was doing well.

[00:34:25] Eric Best:
If it's the best one that I've ever done, I've achieved my goal on that.

[00:34:29] Adam Grant:
Sure enough, psychologists find that one of the liabilities of perfectionism is being obsessed with maintaining your image. If you focus instead on working toward mastery, you can stay motivated to keep bettering your OWN best. When I publish a book, I don’t look at how many books other authors have sold. I track whether my latest one outsold the prior ones. The person you’re competing against is your past self, and the bar you’re raising is for your future self.

[00:35:00] Eric Best:
A perfectionist is always going to think that everything that they do is worse than what it is. You need to point out what was wrong and what you need to fix. But also don't forget to point out all the other things you did well.

[00:35:12] Adam Grant:
And the clearer you are about what your personal best looks like, the easier it is to improve.

[00:35:20] Eric Best:
We had a new video system that I could put together, like a best of from that day of practice in 15 minutes or less.

[00:35:27] Adam Grant:
A highlight reel. I love that idea. And this is something that every coach and every manager could do with their team, right. To say, let's sit down and make the weekly highlight reel.

[00:35:38] Eric Best:
So no matter what they had remembered, they would always dwell on the bad thing. So they walked out of there and they watched the highlight video and go "Man I'm good. I really good."

[00:35:49] Jordan Olesnavich:
And anytime we did a best ever dive, he would update our best ever file and resend it. I kind of always had an updated best ever compilation to be able to watch. So that was really helpful.

[00:36:04] Adam Grant:
What I think is so cool about that is I think it shifts, at least for me, it shifted my attention away from this impossible standard of perfect and toward comparing my current performance to my past performance.

[00:36:17] Jordan Olesnavich:
Yeah, making it a me against me type of thing, rather than me against perfection.

[00:36:24] Adam Grant:
It’s often difficult to judge your own performance. This brings us to a third technique for overcoming perfectionism: find a group of judges you trust. In diving, I was able to rely on Eric for feedback. At work, I’ve set up a quality control committee. When I’m not sure if a project is good enough, I send it independently to a few trusted colleagues who share my standards. I treat them like diving judges: their job is to rate my work on a scale from 0-10. On an important project I’m aiming for 9s. If I get 8s across the board, I know I can stop hating it. Then I ask each judge to tell me the one thing I can do better. That’s the fourth technique: don’t focus on everything you did wrong. Research suggests that too much feedback can distract and demotivate you. Instead, identify just a few things you want to improve each day.

[00:37:16] Eric Best:
Each day. Every time you do a dive, you get coaching on it and your goal is to make it better. You know, usually with perfectionist, you settle them down and you give them two or three things to specifically focus on in the dive.

[00:37:32] Adam Grant:
Even if it's not perfect, you give yourself a certain number of tries to make progress and then commit to moving on for that day.

[00:37:40] Jordan Olesnavich:
So he set a lot of parameters and limitations with the number of dives that he would let me do and you know, the length of time to be at practice and that type of thing.

[00:37:52] Eric Best:
Okay. That one's done. Let's move on. Let's go. Let's okay. This is what you've got coming up. This is what I want you to thinking about on that dive.

[00:37:58] Jordan Olesnavich:
He used to say. "Don't slam on the brakes for an accident that's five miles down the road." I think meaning like, if something is a teeny bit wrong, don't change everything you're doing.

[00:38:11] Adam Grant:
If you're hosting a podcast, you concentrate on sounding more conversational and worry later about emotion and emphasis. If you're cooking, you focus on improving sauce, consistency, not scrapping the whole recipe-- unless it tastes really awful. As a physician's assistant, Jordan has learned not to let imperfections bog her down.

[00:38:34] Jordan Olesnavich:
Working in orthopedic surgery, maybe where I do the best managing my perfectionism. I could follow the perfect treatment regimen. Do all the things that the literature recommends to do for this type of patient. And sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't. And maybe perfect isn't the goal here either. Maybe it's getting functional or it's being able to do the activities that the patient wants to do. Perfect isn't attainable in my profession and just realizing that makes me feel less frazzled and crazy.

[00:39:17] Adam Grant:
As a diver, I didn't make the Olympics, but I ended up getting better than anyone expected.
[00:39:23] Eric Best:
You probably went the furthest with the least amount of talent of any diver I've ever coached. And yes, that's meant to be a compliment, not an insult.

Adam Grant:
[Laughter] I'll take it.

Eric Best:
Your struggles in diving taught you how to manage that perfectionist streak in you and also help make you a much, much better teacher.

[00:39:42] Adam Grant:
I think you're spot on. I'd been bad at lots of things before, but I never worked at them like I did diving.

Eric Best:

Adam Grant:
Ultimately, success is less about how close you've come to perfection and more about the struggles you've managed to overcome. Although I was never satisfied with my diving, there’s a version of me that could’ve been. I realized that the 14-year-old kid who could barely do a flip would’ve been blown away by the progress I made. And if my past self would’ve been amazed at how good I got, maybe that can be good enough for me now.


Our regular WorkLife episodes are back starting in June. Until then we have some great interview episodes every week including the amazing Ava DuVernay. So stay tuned for those.

WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O’Donnell, Constanza Gallardo, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by JoAnn DeLuna. Our show is mixed by Ben Chesneau. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Studios. And a shout out to Alex Gonzalez for sharing his work fail.

Special thanks to our sponsors: LinkedIn, Morgan Stanley, ServiceNow, and UKG.

For their research, gratitude to Andrew Hill on perfectionism, Ivana Osenk and colleagues on perfection vs. excellence, Amy Edmondson and Dave Hofmann on normalizing communication about errors, and Chak Fu Lam and colleagues on too much feedback.


Adam Grant:
The way that you describe your self-criticism, is that perfectionism or are you just being British?

Thomas Curran:
Um, well, that's a good question. I don't know. Probably both.