How to overcome perfectionism in a judgmental world

Remember that you can be somewhere in the middle, neither best nor worst.
Remember that you can be somewhere in the middle, neither best nor worst.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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For nearly a decade, I’ve been trying to write a young-adult zombie novel. But until recently, I was stuck around the 3,000-word mark.

The problem? Whenever I opened my Word document, I’d read over what I’d written and notice something new that could be improved upon: an awkward line of dialogue, a muddled metaphor. I wanted my novel to be good, and so I was stuck endlessly revising it. But my quest to avoid writing something mediocre meant I was making no real progress at all.

The fear of mediocrity holds a lot of us back in our professional pursuits, as became evident at The Cut’s “How I Get It Done” conference in New York City. A running theme among the many successful entrepreneurs, activists, and artists featured at the March conference was that the key to getting stuff done is letting go of perfectionism and the need to wow other people right out of the gate.

“You don’t have to be perfect to set out on the road to accomplishing your goals,” said Topeka K. Sam, a criminal-justice reform activist, in her keynote speech. “The first step to achieving anything you want to achieve is just to start doing it and not worry that you are not good enough or that you have permission to do it.”

Natasha Lyonne, the star and co-creator of the hit Netflix series Russian Doll, offered similar advice at a panel that day. “As women, we always wanna hand in the most perfect, finished thing,” she said, describing the mindset as “you can’t pull this apart because I’ve already thought through all the angles that you’re gonna insult about it.” Lyonne said she’s had to learn to fight that instinct in order to get projects like Russian Doll made.

“There are a lot of kids out there who feel very cocksure going out into the world and showing you their half-baked idea,” she said. Part of what’s allowed her to succeed, she said, is “trusting that I can be in the middle. Do I have to be the best or the worst?”

Lyonne and Sam both make excellent points: Perfectionism often gets in the way of achieving our goals, as organizational behavior researchers Brian Swider, Dana Harari, and their colleagues concluded in a 2018 article for the Harvard Business Review. Their meta-analysis of 95 studies on perfectionism in the workplace, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, showed that while perfectionistic employees may be more engaged and motivated, “that impact is being offset by opposing forces, like higher depression and anxiety.”

The researchers also found no link between perfectionism and performance; no wonder, since the result of holding ourselves to impossibly high standards tends to be some combination of a) panic b) paralysis and c) an angst-ridden desire to do nothing but hide under our desks listening to sad country songs and eating chocolate-chip cookies.

Embracing mediocrity—or at least the possibility of it—can be liberating. But it’s also a tall order, especially for women, people of color, and others from typically underrepresented groups in the workplace. That’s because it’s actually quite logical for women, for example, to worry about being judged harshly for delivering work that’s subpar.

Studies show that women are broadly perceived as less capable than their male counterparts, getting passed over for the very same entrepreneurial pitches or job applications that are deemed worthy when they come from men. That means women already have to put in extra effort to convince their colleagues of their basic competency, and that any mistakes women make may be counted more against them. So how are women supposed to overcome perfectionism in a world that makes it seem nigh-impossible to succeed if we’re anything less than flawless?

The confidence of mediocre men

Google the phrase “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” and you’ll be greeted with mugs, t-shirts, tote bags, and cross-stitches emblazoned with the slogan, many of them for sale on Etsy. The phrase is attributed to writer Sarah Hagi, who tweeted the joking prayer as an antidote to imposter syndrome back in 2015.

Mediocre white men have good reason to be confident in the working world, as structural privilege means that they really do have an edge over the competition. Consider Derek Thompson’s 2012 article for The Atlantic on the phenomenon of mediocre workers seemingly “failing up.”

Citing research from Finnish economist Marko Terviö, Thompson explains that, in high-profile positions in business, Hollywood, or sports, the “mediocre incumbent” tends to be favored over potentially more talented—but unproven—newbies. “In some industries, career development appears to be the result of the self-perpetuating power of publicity rather than the logical result of clearly earned success,” Thompson writes. Basically, once your name is out there, it doesn’t necessarily matter how well you perform; you’ve got the advantage of being known as the kind of person who gets to be in powerful positions.

Although the article doesn’t wade into the issue of gender dynamics, it’s probably no coincidence that the six people Thompson offers as case studies in failing upward are men, and all but one are white, from actors Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Reynolds to football coaches Lane Kiffen and Nick Saban. Since white men are more likely to be hired in powerful roles in the first place, once they have their foot in the door, they can keep being mediocre incumbents ad infinitum.

Women, meanwhile, are less likely to get second or third chances. In Hollywood, it’s common knowledge that women directors are more likely to be relegated to “movie jail” for a film that flounders at the box office, while men are regularly able to bounce back from flops. In the C-suite, the “glass cliff” phenomenon means that struggling companies often choose women—like former Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer or former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao—to lead them during times of crisis, only to oust women leaders when they’re unable to deliver a quick fix for the outsized problems they were handed.

The pressure to deliver undeniably excellent work is even greater for women of color. As high-school student and middle-grade novelist Malavika Kannan writes in an essay for HuffPost, “When you’re a young writer of color, and your success is predicated on your acceptance from the majority, perfection can feel like the only real option … The numbers are stacked against us — only 12 percent of children’s books feature POC, and over 80 percent of publishing staff are white. My path to success is along a percentile-skinny tightrope, so it only follows that I’ve got to be a darn good acrobat.”

Adjusting your reality setting

So what’s to be done if you’re a person who’s at once hobbled by perfectionism and rightfully wary of the consequences of releasing just-okay work into the world?

First, be aware that, if you’re a woman, chances are your work is already better than you think. Multiple studies have shown that men tend to overestimate their intelligence and abilities, while women consistently underestimate themselves. As journalist Katty Kay, co-author of the 2014 book The Confidence Code, once told Wharton management professor Adam Grant, “Women don’t believe they are as good as they are.” So right at the outset, take however bad you think your project or pitch or big idea is and dial that fear down a couple notches. Think of this as your “reality” setting.

Next, try to focus on the task at hand, rather than ruminating on what the end result will be. As Quartz’s Ephrat Livni has noted, “Feelings aren’t reliable indicators of whether we’re doing something well or something useful. As such, productive people don’t let their feelings dictate their actions.”

Instead, just get started, trying your best to be nonjudgmental about the quality of what you’re producing. Remember that it doesn’t have to be good right now; even if what you’re making is currently mediocre, you can always fix it later.

Fixing it later is key. For that, you’ll likely need a person—or group of people—you can trust to look at your weird, unpolished, half-formed creation without treating it as indicative of your abilities as a whole. In other words, find someone you can be mediocre around—like an editor.

This American Life host and executive producer Ira Glass eloquently summed up the importance of the editing process in his 2018 commencement speech at Columbia Journalism School:

Editing is crucial because in my experience anything you try to make – what YOU want is for the story to be AMAZING. But what the story wants to be is MEDIOCRE OR WORSE. And the entire process of making the story is convincing the story to not be what it wants to be, which is BAD. And turning it from the bad thing it’s trying to be, where the sources are inarticulate, and you don’t know how to structure it, and the structure you make doesn’t work, into the shining gleaming jewel that you have in your heart … that is editing!

Your editor needn’t be a professional for this tactic to work, nor does the process apply only to journalism or storytelling. You might ask a trusted coworker to review your PowerPoint presentation when you’re feeling stuck, or drop by a professor’s office hours to run an admittedly messy outline by them. What’s important is that you release yourself from the expectation that you are capable of producing great work, and only great work, all on your own.

In my own case, it turned out the secret to making progress on that YA novel was to join a writing group.  Because the other three people in my writing group are supportive and smart, I know that I don’t have to be afraid to turn in sloppy drafts; they’ll cheer me on and help me figure out ways to turn my mediocre work into something I can be proud of. And in the meantime, since I now have to turn something in every other month, I can’t afford to keep worrying over whether a scene is working. I just have to keep plunging ahead.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here