Is Perfectionism Holding You Back? Try Imperfectionism Instead

This post first appeared on Forbes.

Perfectionism is on the rise. Much has been written about the perils of holding yourself and others to unrealistic and unreasonable standards. Perfectionism has been linked to depression and anxiety in individuals and can be destructive to relationships. And though some argue that striving for perfection can be positive, if you live or work with a perfectionist you know that, more often than not, it leads to frustration and feelings of inadequacy. Moreover, in organizations, perfectionism simply doesn’t scale: it’s wildly inefficient and not conducive to collaboration. 

But what if, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza, you do the opposite? Try taking a page from theologian and author Forrest Church and cultivate imperfectionism. As he writes in his poem, The Imperfectionist

“The reason I’ve been able to

produce so much

is that I’m not a perfectionist—

I’m an imperfectionist.

I’m confident that everything

I say

can be improved upon by others,

and that’s my great strength,

because I know that it won’t be improved upon by others

unless I take the first step.”

Church urges us to share our gifts—imperfect though they are—rather than hold them tight. In freely giving our ideas and ourselves, we make a contribution in service of moving an idea, an action or a conversation forward. Imperfectionism promotes collaboration. 

Readers of my blog know I am not a perfectionist, though I do often labor longer than you might think over a post or a sentence. But at some point, my deadline creeps up on me, and I declare what I am writing “good enough” and hit “publish.” My commitment is to share what I am learning and observing, knowing I will never be the final authority, hoping that I am adding to the conversation. 

To be clear, by promoting imperfectionism, I am not endorsing sloppiness or low standards. I believe in high standards and continuous improvement, but I believe that excellence will be achieved not by the pursuit of perfection but by the pursuit of collective betterment. 

Imperfectionism takes practice, especially if you are prone to the fear of looking stupid. Here are a few tips:

Declare your intent to collaborate. Let people know that you are offering an idea without being attached to being right. Phrases such as, “I’m thinking out loud here…,” “Let me try this idea out on you…,” “Here are my initial thoughts…”  or “I’m wondering if….” can help you get over the hurdle of your own perfectionism. Caution: watch out for minimizing words, like “just” which can undercut you (women especially beware). Instead, share your ideas with confidence in the value of your contribution, even if you are uncertain of your correctness. 

Invite others into the conversation. When you offer an idea or suggest an action, solicit others’ responses and input. Welcome challenges and critiques as essential to learning and collaboration.

Share a draft. For written work, start by typing DRAFT at the top to remind yourself that you are not creating a polished product. In Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott invites us to write a “shitty first draft.” Share an early draft with a trusted friend or colleague and invite comments. And if you are struggling, you can jot down a few bullet points. The important part is to get your idea down in writing and share it so that it can be improved. 

Make room for ideation. If your team has a perfectionist culture, set aside space and time for brainstorming. Give yourself and others permission to share half-baked or risky ideas. Establish a ground rule of non-judgment during the generative phase. Or find a thought partner, someone whom you trust to challenge and expand your thinking.

Embrace learning. Scientists know that you often learn as much from what doesn’t work as from what does work. Adopt a growth mindset so that you glean learning from your failures, not just from the content, but also as a test of your underlying assumptions and thought process. 

And as Church points out, “the more times you act, the more certain it is that you will be wrong.” So it is important that you also practice self-compassion, which is essential to soften the judgment of perfectionism.

The poem closes, “…in the brief time that is given us, we must somehow learn to give ourselves away.” If we practice imperfectionism, it is this spirit of generosity that guides us.