Our education system and society at large reward the idea of striving for perfection: getting an “A” on an exam, flawlessly executing a project, looking like the super fit people on the cover of most magazines; and yet, in the world of entrepreneurship, perfection is more of a liability than an asset.
I’ve seen the need for perfection stop many entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs dead in their tracks. Perfection paralyzes people. If you believe that you need to be perfect, you are less likely to take risks, and more likely to be afraid to take a single step because you don’t want to move in the “wrong” direction.
Because it’s easy to confuse perfection with success, figuring out how to navigate the perfection trap involves wading through some of the murkiest waters of entrepreneurship. True success involves more failure than most people realize, it also involves unlearning much of what we’ve spent our lives believing is “right.”
I believe the need for perfection is also deeply entrenched with the desire to avoid shame. We believe that if we are perfect, if we do everything right, then we are good people. Unfortunately, playing the perfection game is like trying to hit a moving target. And the target just keeps moving. You get good grades, get into a great school, get the most prestigious job, receive a promotion, find the ideal partner, buy the nice house, up and up you climb – trying to justify your existence through outward validation. Believing if you “succeed,” you’ll be happy and you’ll feel like enough. But it’s never enough.
From what I’ve seen, chasing external accolades often leads to a lack of fulfillment and a yearning that there must be more to life. And in the world of entrepreneurship, chasing external validation can cause collapse very quickly. Think about what it takes to “succeed” in most schools and traditional jobs today. You must follow the rules, avoid experimentation or classes you know you can’t get an “A” in, avoid risks, play it safe, and you’ll keep being rewarded. In the world of entrepreneurship, however, the rules are almost entirely reversed. Successful entrepreneurs are able to fail quickly, learn from their mistakes, and move on. “Prototype, prototype, prototype” is what one of our Stanford professors would always say. Trial and error and the classic ‘drunken walk’ – when your idea sways one way and then another before finding steady ground – are well known, and important, aspects of the entrepreneurial journey.
How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory ideas? We can’t. This is why many perfectionists avoid entrepreneurship, and those perfectionists who do give it a shot quickly learn that they must un-learn many of their current beliefs to survive as an entrepreneur.
Successful entrepreneurs are the ones who are willing to raise their hand and say, “I don’t get it,” or “I’m confused” rather than needing to look smart. These same people are open to getting it wrong. Rather than viewing failure as a setback, they view it as feedback and simply another step towards their future success.
Sheryl Sandberg has a large sign in her office that says, “Perfection is the enemy of the good,” a quote from Voltaire, and I couldn’t agree more. Here are 5 tips to let go of perfection and leverage your failures to create even more success.
1. Disentangle perfection and self-worth. To let go of the need to be perfect, we need to value ourselves for our intrinsic worth rather than our external success. Start to notice when you take failure personally, or when criticism feels like an attack on your character rather than feedback. Ask yourself “What is the gift or opportunity in this situation?” Focus on the positive rather than viewing it as a verdict on your inherent lack of worth. We need to believe we are enough. Brene Brown, PhD is a best-selling author who’s been studying shame and vulnerability for the last twelve years. She suggests printing a photo of yourself with the sentence “I’m imperfect and I am enough” as a caption and placing the photo in a prominent place – forcing you to see it every day – which will re-program your thoughts around perfection.
2. Create a Commitment Statement. Commitment Statements are great at getting people unstuck and, therefore, extremely helpful when you are paralyzed by perfection. A great statement to use to combat the perfection trap is “I commit to learning from my mistakes and moving on.” For full instructions on how to create a Commitment Statement, click here.
3. Take action. The most important thing you can do when you are paralyzed by perfection is to act. As soon as you do, you are no longer paralyzed. Start off small. Find a very simple and easy first step you can take to move yourself forward. I took almost two years before posting a single blog because I thought my first blog had to be “perfect” and go viral (no pressure, or anything). I finally decided to take action and wrote my first blog (ironically, or rather inspirationally, about perfectionism). The blog didn’t go viral, but less than six months later I’m writing for Forbes and that only happened because I forced myself to write something.
4. Find examples of people you admire who have failed. Think of someone right now who you look up to who had a big failure along his or her path to success. Everyone I know who is successful has failed many times. Kathy Ireland, who runs a multi-billion dollar company, recently said at the Forbes Women’s Summit, “I view failure as education, and I am very well educated!”
5. Play the flash forward game. Another way to get out of the perfection trap is to think of yourself at the end of your life looking back. If you were to say “I’m most proud that I….” how would you fill in that sentence? Chances are, you would rather try and fail then not try at all when you consider the big picture.
The truth is, no one is perfect. Deep down we know this and yet we continue to chase an ideal. Once you acknowledge this truth – instead of beating yourself up – you can live in a place of acceptance and empowerment. Choosing to learn from your mistakes and move on is the path to innovation, creativity, and successful entrepreneurship. So get out there and be perfectly imperfect!
This article first appeared in Forbes.