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Perfectionism and Productivity: Visions of Success or Fear of Failure?

written by Eleanor Chin 15 September 2009

Eleanor Chin, MAPP '08, is a life and executive coach. Founder and President of Clarity Partners Coaching and Consulting, she works with institutional and individual clients to support them as they navigate change, create inclusive and dynamic systems, and leverage strategic strengths for growth, learning and competitive advantage. Full bio.

Eleanor's past articles are here.

What drives productivity for you? Is it visions of success or fear of failure? If it’s the latter, you’re probably a perfectionist.

I admit it. I have been known to set impossibly high standards for myself. Some of you might be saying: What’s wrong with having high standards?

Nothing. But to my mind, a perfectionist is someone who not only wants to do well but is driven to avoid failure at all costs. Perfection is excellence on steroids.

Here’s where language can help or hinder us. Striving for excellence is a positive driver because excellence is an attainable quality that allows for some miss-steps along the way. But striving for perfection 1) is not attainable 2) is based on fear of failure or inadequacy and 3) can actually set us up to fail.

Perfectionism is often a quality of highly successful people, but perfection can be a moving target. When taken too far, we create ever-changing, and therefore, unattainable goals for ourselves. Perfectionists are never satisfied with themselves or others. They are often stressed out or depressed from trying to reach ever-higher standards. They can be chronic procrastinators and control freaks, potentially doomed to pervasive frustration in their search for life satisfaction.

Procrastination Frustration

Procrastination Frustration

The Price of Perfectionism

Taken to extremes, perfectionism can be the enemy of productivity.

Perfectionists can look productive but a different picture emerges below the surface. Perfectionists are paralyzed by fear that their work will fall short when being judged. This paralysis prevents them from finishing projects, as they ponder over them incessantly in fear they don’t measure up.

When performance falls short, researchers have found that perfectionism leads to more than decreased productivity. A perfectionist’s self-esteem is contingent on achievement. Thus, deeper effects include reduced self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Perfectionism can also damage relationships.

Perfectionists can also achieve great successes but often with high costs. Researchers Robins and Wrzesniewski reflect on Michelangelo, who after more than a decade of work on the Florentine Pieta – considered his most important work to date — one day shattered it to pieces with a sledgehammer. “Disillusioned and isolated in the last decades of his life, Michelangelo had a heightened sense of perfectionism that was exacerbated by his failure to live up to the expectations of his father, who viewed being a sculptor as akin to being a manual laborer. Michelangelo, it seems, had self-esteem issues.”

For years, I’ve thought of myself as a procrastinator. I can show you a closet full of unfinished projects all neatly packaged and ready to go—the wall hanging for my sister from Christmas 1990, the sweater for my husband, no longer stylish, the scrapbook of baby pictures, etc. etc. Sound familiar?

I now understand that procrastination is related to perfectionism. I was afraid that these highly personal manifestations of my talents wouldn’t measure up, afraid that I would disappoint others. By not completing projects, I neatly avoided being judged by not having a final product!

Perfectionism Research
Research on perfectionism includes the following three categories of automatic thinking: self-oriented (expecting perfection of themselves), other-oriented (expecting perfection of others) and socially prescribed (believing that others demand perfection of them).

Researchers have also identified six major dimensions of perfectionism—extreme concern over making mistakes, high personal standards, the perception of high parental expectations and criticism, doubting the quality of one’s actions, and preference for order and organization. Can you relate to any of these?

Perfectionism is democratic. It can induce anxiety and undermine resilience in children or adults, men and women. Stories abound of high-achieving students who fall apart at the prospect of getting an A- rather than an A+ and of executives who reach a plateau because they are unable to delegate.

Tips for Combating Perfectionist Thinking

We learn to value perfectionist tendencies from our parents, our peers, our work settings, our relationships, and from society. But the good news is that what we can learn, we can also unlearn. How can we help ourselves and our children to be less perfectionist and more productive?

1. Stress excellence rather than perfection. Remind yourself and others about the difference between the desire to excel and the desire to be perfect. Sometimes this distinction can help curb perfectionist thinking with more mindfulness.

2. Cultivate a “learning” rather than a “performance” mindset. With a learning mindset, we think of mistakes as information for learning how to do things differently next time. With a performance mindset, we tend to focus on success or failure of the outcome and miss the opportunities to learn from the process.

3. Focus on “benefit-finding” rather than “fault-finding.” Catch yourself and others doing something right by noticing and shifting your tendencies to be critical. Of course, it’s hard to rewire our critical thinking brains. But you can start by changing the balance of positive and negative thoughts. Look for, savor and celebrate the good things more than you search for things that go wrong.

4. Put it in perspective. Put it into perspective by asking yourself, will this matter in a year? Is it worth the cost of the self-esteem, psychological and emotional health of yourself, your friends, colleagues or your child?

5. Monitor your self-talk when you or others make mistakes. Instead of sending the message “you’re not good enough,” consider actions that appreciate the effort or notice the steps in the process. Create space for imperfection by allowing the effort to be “good enough.” Better yet, celebrate mistakes. Benjamin Zander, Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, punctuates his musicians’ flubs with a delighted “how fascinating!”

Riding a Big Wave

Riding a Big Wave

6. Focus on the journey. Set a goal, write it down, and then forget about it by directing your attention to the process of getting there. Focusing on what’s happening in the moment will help distract you from worrying about the outcome. Mindfulness training helps with focusing on the moment.

Ultimately, we are a culture focused on performance, but we are more than the sum of our achievements. Human beings are also made up of personal stories, values, passions, hopes and dreams. We need to remember to honor who we are as well as what we do. Otherwise, we’d be called “human doings.”



Besser, A., Flett, G.L., Hewitt, P.L., Guez, J. (2008), Perfectionism, and cognitions, affect, self-esteem, and physiological reactions in a performance situation. Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. 26, 206-228.

Martin, A. (2005), The role of positive psychology in enhancing satisfaction, motivation and productivity in the workplace. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. 24 (1), 113-133.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill. For a review of The Pursuit of Perfect see PPND author Amanda Horne’s post this month.

Zander, R. & Zander, B. (2000). The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. New York: Penguin.

Target, Evaluation Form, and Stones courtesy of author, Streeter Seidell courtesy of Zach Klein, Wave courtesy of thelastminute

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1 comment

Jennifer Murayama 26 October 2011 - 12:35 am

Hi Ms. Chin,
I appreciate your piece on perfectionism and found it perfect for for my article on the same topic, particularly in regards to its relationship to procrastination and productivity. I just wanted to let you know that I linked your work to my article on Examiner.com: http://www.examiner.com/work-life-balance-in-new-york/who-wants-to-be-perfect

I’m sure my readers will find your page helpful!


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