“Real artists ship." - Steve Jobs
One of the most common challenges we observe when working with high-achievers is the drive to pursue perfection. On the surface, this seems like a worthy aim – after all, to achieve greatness one must surely do great work, right?
Let’s start by challenging the very idea of perfection: What’s perfect to you probably isn’t perfect to me. We each have our own perspective on the world, and it’s through that lens that we perceive either flaws or flourishes. It’s subjective.
If perfection is a matter of opinion then, what are we actually pursuing when we claim to be going after it? This, too, is no doubt subjective. For some, it’s about the perfect expression of their creative talents: Hitting the perfect note, painting the perfect picture, or writing the perfect post. For others, it’s about meeting the expectations of others: trying to get the perfect score on the test, delivering the perfect solution for the customer, or writing the perfect presentation for your boss.
I’m sure some folks will read the previous paragraph and see the merit in those pursuits. After all, we should share our talents with the world, and we should try to deliver great work. But there is a line between great and perfect, and if you cross it, you risk embarking on a fool’s errand, like chasing rainbows.
Steve Jobs was a much-celebrated perfectionist. He spent as much time trying to make the insides of his computers look as beautiful as the outsides (a principle he learned from his father, who was a cabinet maker). However, even Steve knew that you had to deliver, and his self-aware ‘Real artists ship’ mantra was a reminder to him and his team that when the deadlines hit, you have to down-tools and ship, warts and all. Despite that, he still drove many in his team to exhaustion and collapse in the process.
This highlights the real challenge. As individual contributors, the pursuit of perfection may actually get us ahead early in our careers. We’ll sacrifice our health, work-life balance, and important relationships along the way, but as long as we keep delivering great work people will love us for it. But as we transition to management, we’re now writing the checks that our team needs to cash. Perfectionism in a manager will often show up as micro-management or a failure to delegate effectively, missed deadlines, ineffective decision-making caused by ‘analysis paralysis, and any number of other ways to erode team trust and fail to deliver results. This, in turn, leads to employee engagement and retention issues, as people become disillusioned trying to reach the unattainable bar you’ve set them.
So, the next time you find yourself chasing rainbows, consider what the cost might be to yourself or others. After all, even if you do achieve perfection for yourself, there are plenty of people who would see it differently.