And why your company can still succeed because of it
“This is never going to be right.”
As the words came out of my mouth, I regretted them almost instantly.
My vehement tone was biting, and the silent room around me verified it.
The Jotform team had been working on a project for a few months now, and I simply could not let go of one particular detail that we’d been struggling to achieve.
It was coming down to the wire, and we had a solid version. The only thing standing in our way was me.
I never intended to be one of those CEOs who micro-managed projects, focusing solely on perfection with no room for failure.
And in this moment, scrutinizing the hard work of our team, I knew that I had fallen victim to the poison of perfectionism.
I’m aware that you should expect a lot from your employees when it comes to running a successful company. But there comes a point where obsessive perfectionism is a liability to your company’s growth.
In fact, it could be exactly what’s holding you back from achieving your goals.
If you ever find yourself plagued by perfectionism, remember: every decision you ever make about your product will be wrong. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good decision.
Let me explain.
How to make the right decisions: all models are wrong
Remembering British statistician George Box’s famous line from 1976:
“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
As James Clear analysed this concept further, even the best models of the world are imperfect and this insight is crucial if we want to learn how to make decisions and take action on a daily basis,
“… George Box’s point was that we should focus more on whether something can be applied to everyday life in a useful manner rather than debating endlessly if an answer is correct in all cases.”
We are all aware of the cliched, “put it on a poster” idea about failure and success: The ‘if you don’t try, you won’t succeed’ way of thinking.
But there’s a reason why we focus so much energy on understanding this concept.
Truly, I think few people these days have a problem with failure. Sure, we’re all afraid to fail, but that’s not really the crux of the issue.
The real problem is that the prospect of getting it right is so daunting that we decide doing nothing is better.
So today, with so many companies rapidly developing new products seemingly every day, we don’t fear failure — we fear mediocrity. We fear not getting it done perfectly.
While we’re convincing ourselves that no one would want something that isn’t absolutely perfect, there are tons of products succeeding out there that are far from it.
Here’s an example: it drives me crazy that after completing a show on Netflix, the platform still suggests that I watch the same series, as if it has no idea that I’ve already finished it.
But does that stop me from using one of the most successful entertainment resources of 2018? Of course it doesn’t — because I’m focusing on what the product does give me, not it’s very teeny tiny imperfections.
The only thing keeping you from having built something and having built nothing is your brain telling you that whatever you’re going to build isn’t going to be good enough.
Take all these successful founders who started their careers with a flopped or underdeveloped idea:
Drew Houston, founder of Dropbox, had an SAT prep company that he failed to get into a startup accelerator.
Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder of LinkedIn, first created an online dating and social network site that the world just wasn’t ready for.
Melanie Perkins, Co-Founder of Canva, received over 100 NOs for her graphic design platform before getting funded.
Now that Dropbox has launched its IPO, LinkedIn has 546 million users, and Canva has become Australia’s latest unicorn, people seem to have forgotten about those prior failures.
These entrepreneurs all had one thing in common:
After the first go-around, they knew more for next time. Something perfectionism will never allow.
If I halted all progress on Jotform every time it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, we wouldn’t have discovered and built a lot of things that we now love.
That’s why I regretted those words almost instantly.
Why perfectionism is bad for business
Perfectionism can be pretty toxic for your business.
Striving for something that is often impossible will cause you to constantly pick apart everything that isn’t right — which, according to Box’s theory of models, is everything.
When you strive for perfectionism, you’re constantly using up time for looking at the big picture to hone in on particular details that will never be right in the first place.
Not only perfection is an illusion and sets you up to be forever disappointed in your work, but it can also lead to obsession over time.
While we can all benefit from finding ourselves a bit obsessed with what we’re building, obsession can quickly become an obstruction in our ability to grow.
An increasing number of studies also show that obsession can become detrimental to your mental health, leading to burnout and even corrupting office relationships. You don’t want to become controlling and incapable of listening to the brilliant ideas coming from your employees.
Author Adi Gaskell calls this “the dark side of perfectionism”, which gives you a negative reputation and could turn people away from wanting to work for your company. You can’t control everything.
Even if you managed to get a project done ‘perfectly’, it could easily be dismantled by outside forces.
So when you reach a goal or accomplish something big, try taking the time to realize what you’ve done fully, instead of looking at the imperfections.
And if you find this difficult, just think about how the little details can be part of your next efforts to improve. Disappointment is inevitable but so are imperfections.
Find yourself a nice balance, and you’ll be much better prepared for success.
Building the ‘screw it’ attitude
This easily sounds like a BS “lifehack” or one of those success shortcuts the productivity gurus love to recommend, but if you still find that perfectionism is stunting your new ideas, taking the ‘screw it’ attitude can actually help.
Sometimes, you just have to forget that people will find flaws in what you’re doing, and instead focus on the fact that you’re doing something.
“If you’re not embarrassed by your version one release, you released it too late.” Reid Hoffman
This sentiment has been echoed around the world by successful people, and yet we still find it so difficult to follow.
It’s most likely because we all hate putting our name to something that we’re embarrassed of, but the people who can manage to get over this fear usually end up winning in the end.
Getting the perfectionist out of you requires daily practice.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you just can’t let go of something before it’s just right, remember: perfection is an illusion.
It doesn’t exist.
So just screw it.
Focus instead on the beautiful fact that you can’t ever get it right. But you can still do it.
It worked for us, and I hope it can work for you, too.