Why perfectionism is a freelancer’s worst enemy

To many of us, attaining a state of perfection is the ultimate achievement, whether we realize it or not.

Perfectionism comes in many forms, such as:

  • continually striving to deliver more effective results for your clients,
  • bringing on more contracts, or
  • working 80hr weeks to bring in more revenue.

All arguably great things for our businesses, right?

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Now, in my own experience I find that we often don’t recognize this detrimental behavior once it’s kicked in and become habit.

I’ve recently begun taking a hard look at myself and how I function within my business. I’m seeing a recurring tendency to feel that there’s always more that can be done, and done better…despite already delivering strong results for my clients.

I’m realizing that in my own way, I consistently strive to be “perfect” at most things I do.

Do you ever feel like you’re in the same boat with your business? Share your story in the comments.

Of course, starting with this goal of perfection means frequent failure, which can fuel the ambition to try even harder next time. But attempts at perfectionism can also be very harmful, and will likely lead to failure for your business.

Therefore, we freelancers must be very selective about what forms of perfect we pursue, and instead find balance between done and perfect.

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The good

Before I discuss the pitfalls of perfectionism, I do want to recognize that there are some major points in its favor, and examples of great business leaders who’ve triumphed with perfectionist ideals.

If you strive to be perfect, which, of course, you never will be, it does mean that you are always attempting to improve on what you are doing. This provides the opportunity to come up with some truly impressive innovations as you move toward that state of nirvana you crave, and in theory should make you an expert in your field.

Perfectionism can help over-achievers continually chase higher standards and expanded visions.

Some of society’s most innovative people have been perfectionists.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s late lamented leader, was once an adamant perfectionist. His obsession with detail, however, meant that the company took more than three years to develop the original Macintosh.

Jobs managed to temper his perfection as time progressed and hire people he trusted in. This helped Apple to become more capable of tackling the mass market and less of a niche product company.

Here’s an example: I’ve taken several months to develop my course on Writing a Winning Freelance Proposal, when I really could have polished it off in about 4 weeks total. Rather, I had to reshoot video content that wasn’t quite perfect and build new functionalities into my website that I really didn’t need.

I’ve decided to actively change this behavior and accept that “done” is better than “perfect and never completed.”

Pursuing excellence does not require perfection. Seek excellence, yet stop short of requiring unreasonably perfect results.

The bad

The reality is that for almost everyone, perfectionism is an impossible goal.

There is a near certainty that you will fail at whatever you are trying to do if you’re determined to be perfect. There’s also the real danger that you’ll suffer other side effects due to this obsession.

All of these are likely to be harmful to your business.

Psychological burden

Perfectionists set impossibly high standards for themselves. As a result, they’re not happy even when they have achieved success because there is always more that could have been accomplished.

And many perfectionists struggle to achieve success in the first place simply because they’re afraid of making mistakes.

It can quickly become a lose-lose situation.

If you honestly believe you need everything to be perfect, you’re saddling yourself with a huge psychological burden.

Example: People may love watching Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory, laughing at his OCD and perfectionism, but few people would actually want to be him.

Unhealthy stress

One of the most common types of perfectionism is self-oriented perfectionism, in which people impose high standards on themselves. Most people cannot live up to their self-imposed expectations and suffer extreme stress as a result.

Thankfully, for Apple’s sake, when Steve Jobs returned to the company after a lengthy absence, he had moderated his perfectionist streak and learned the importance of relying on a brilliant team to share the workload.

This change meant that neither Jobs nor his talented team had to suffer (as much) from the stress of his perfectionism as they previously had.

Pressure

Perfectionists frequently feel others expect them to be perfect, and this places an enormous amount of pressure on them.

(Of course, most likely there’s little actual pressure, but a perfectionist cannot see that.)

There is also the flip side of this equation, where perfectionists often place high levels of pressure on others with ridiculous expectations. (Is your client one of them? Read more here about how to handle clients who pressure you to work faster.)

Cleverly dubbed “constructive sniping” by career coach Liz Ryan, this tendency by many to not acknowledge successes as often as picking out flaws can very easily create a negative mentality.

Expense

There’s always a trade-off between being perfect and being cheap. Somewhere in the middle lies the combination many of the world’s most successful business leaders have found.

Case in point: There is no doubt that Steve Jobs left an enormous legacy at Apple. However, his perfectionism was not cheap for the company.

To quote The New Yorker,

Jobs’s vision required Apple to control every part of the user experience, and to make everything it possibly could itself. Its hardware was proprietary: the company had its own Mac factory and favored unique cables, disk drives, and power cords, rather than standardized ones. Its software was proprietary, too: if you wanted to run Apple software, you needed to own an Apple computer. This made Apple’s computers more expensive than the competition.

Final thoughts

You’ve got enough stress building a business; don’t let the idea of “perfect” turn a career you love into a burden!

How have you overcome the lure of perfectionism? What tips can you share?

Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your ideas.

 

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About Ryan Robinson

I’m an entrepreneur, writer, and freelancer. Join me on ryrob.com and learn how to build a more effective freelance business. Follow me on Twitter for more.

Also: check out The Freelancer’s Roadmap and you’ll get Ryan’s step-by-step process to building a successful freelance business and access to exclusive CreativeLive video content.  

Comments

  1. I know I have perfectionist tendencies but I don’t suffer from the side effects you cite like stress and expense. The biggest downside for me is the one which you refer to several times but don’t mention explicitly, ie TIME.

    I’m constantly tweaking and improving things which – as you say – could well be left alone. The client won’t notice but, because I do, I feel compelled to fix them. These constant ‘little fixes’ add up. They eat into my work time and also interrupt my flow, meaning that I take longer to do whatever I was doing when I noticed them.

    I’m getting better at prioritising them. I now have a board in Trello (thanks for the tip on that!) to which I add each niggly issue. Because I’ve taken some action by noting it down, I don’t get anxious about leaving it undone, which means I can get on with what I’m supposed to be doing!

  2. I know I have perfectionist tendencies but I don’t suffer from the side effects you cite like stress and expense. The biggest downside for me is the one which you refer to several times but don’t mention explicitly, ie TIME.

    I’m constantly tweaking and improving things which – as you say – could well be left alone. The client won’t notice but, because I do, I feel compelled to fix them. These constant ‘little fixes’ add up. They eat into my work time and also interrupt my flow, meaning that I take longer to do whatever I was doing when I noticed them.

    I’m getting better at prioritising them. I add a card to Trello (thanks for the tip on that!) for each non-essential issue, and have a separate board for ones which aren’t directly related to current projects. Because I’ve taken some action by noting it down, I don’t get anxious about leaving it undone, which means I can get on with what I’m supposed to be doing!

  3. My perfectionism and OCD are almost as extreme as Sheldon’s in Big Bang Theory! I can see the effects of it in my daily life and business. I’m hard on myself and I expect others to be perfect too. Thanks for this eye-opening article. I hope I can overcome my perfectionism soon!

  4. Good article, I myself am trying more to follow the adage: “consistently good is better than occasionally great,” as most perfectionists are also procrastinators 😉

    Interesting take on Apple. IMO it was Jobs’ insane perfectionism that made Apple a successful brand. Every little detail about design and user experience was perfected, even the way the ear buds clicked into the iPod.

    Every time I hop on a PC, I’m baffled by how clunky and clumsy it is (#sorrynotsorry, pc fans). Yes Apple is a higher valued brand ($), but that’s part of the appeal. They have more money than Microsoft, so it might be fair to say that perfectionism has its perks. The real question is, are they worth the trade off. Steve Jobs died way too young, who knows if stress contributed to that.

  5. Thanks for the reminder. My borderline obsessive need for perfection prevented me from creating my website for years. And still, after a crazy week of doing everything right up to the point prior to launch, I feel that still I’m not ready because I feel it has to be perfect in every way. I constantly try to remind myself that many entrepreneurs launch with a minimum viable product and then work from there. (I’m hoping to get the site up and running by the end of the week — fingers crossed!)

  6. Is there any line between being a perfectionist and trying strive for excellence? I know quite sure I am not perfect but I trying to put in my best. However, I am mindful of analysis paralysis syndrome

  7. As a Virtual Assistant from a so-called ‘Third World’ country targeting a global clientele, my biggest concern was that nobody was going to take me seriously at the hourly rate that I wanted. (language barrier concerns, perceived lack of shared cultural references that make communications ‘natural’ and efficient, bad experiences with foreign virtual workers, time zone constraints) I obsessively worked on areas I felt weren’t my strong points. I wanted to be the everything-you-need-in-a-va “perfect” to justify my rate… when I had some good skills that can set me apart from the vast sea of virtual assistants. (e.g: I have good graphic design skills, I love research and analysis, I have an artistic bent)
    The funny thing is, I did take the leap precisely because of the ‘quality’ principle you wrote about in your other article, that my work will do all the talking for me. Unfortunately, when we’re -terrified-, we forget everything else. It finally dawned on me that no matter what I do, or how ‘good’ I got there’s nothing I can do about the people who will reflexively turn away from my services (or my rate!) because of one or all those reasons stated above. I think in order to deal with perfectionism, we always need to remember that we will -have- to let go at some point. The last time I checked, you can’t get around hitting publish or send, so the quicker we get to that place of surrender, the better. More like, we have to force it. Haha. It gets easier over time.
    Anyway, it’s so reassuring to find the same “quality is king” mindset from someone on the other side of the Pacific – that at the end of the day, people -will- see if you got it AND if you are the person who can help them. We are living in a global economy, borders have all but disappeared in this interconnected age. Thanks a lot for your two articles.

Trackbacks

  1. […] creating a psychological burden to piling on more stress than necessary a frank discussion of Why Perfectionist is a Freelancer’s Worst Enemy may just open your eyes to your own habits and behaviors (and spur you to make […]

  2. […] it can help push you to overcome some of your current personal and professional limitations. But perfection can also become a huge roadblock to progress if you allow it to creep into every aspect of your decision-making process. Fortunately, when […]

  3. […] for years. First up, here are the ways in which perfectionism can occasionally be a good thing, especially for freelancers and […]

  4. […] can be important, but there is a point when you need to accept the fact that perfect isn’t worth it, in order to move forward and continue making progress with your business. In the beginning, your […]

  5. […] I’ve talked about very frequently, being a perfectionist is not only bad for your health, but also bad for your creativity. Perfectionists spend so much […]

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