April 2010: Bypassing Growth by Pursuing PerfectionApril 1, 2010
I chose to undergo shoulder surgery a few days ago because of a chronic impingement of my rotator cuff tendon.
My surgery revealed how the pursuit of perfection gets in the way of progress, and how accepting limitations brings healing.
The Pursuit of Perfection
“Total quality”, “zero defects,” “getting everything I want,” and other perfection fantasies bypass the wisdom of trade-offs. If one can only be happy when one achieves perfection, misery will never be far away. Falling short, being “good enough,” and failing might teach more important lessons than success.
I know, I know: you think you can do whatever you want and that limits are for those too weak to sacrifice and achieve. Read on.
My surgery last week brought to light the lesson that I couldn’t get everything I wanted.
Without surgery, I would not be able to swim, throw a Frisbee or split wood without pain, for the rest of my life.
With surgery, the problem gets fixed, but I have to pay the cost of down time after surgery, the side effects of pain meds and slow recovery time. I don’t want to pay these costs, but I also don’t want chronic shoulder pain. I learned that in this situation, I cannot have the benefits of recovery without the pain and inconvenience of surgery.
In a similar way I don’t like taking narcotics to ease pain. The side effects of drowsiness, nausea and light-headedness make for long, arduous recovery days. But if I don’t take the pain pills, I won’t sleep very well and will not be able to function in a focused way for an even longer period. My instinct to tough it out could in this case be plainly stupid.
Because surgery is not ideal, saying yes to surgery means being willing to engage in trade-offs.
Perfection in Leadership
This is not substantially different from leadership or parenting decisions. “What can I live with?” might be a more important question than “What do I want?”
Here are some examples:
• Chuck wants Martha to be friendlier in the office. Her door is almost always closed. But Martha’s attention to detail has led her performance to soar while friendly Fred gets mired in unnecessary office conversations. What’s the right balance between interaction and focus?
• Should an acquisition target with a stellar financial upside be rejected because its current owner is an active alcoholic?
• Is total consensus of the management team always necessary? Can the team move forward without complete buy-in?
• If you are married, how long did it take before you realized you didn’t choose a perfect mate? Are you able to accept that this makes you just like every other human?
Minimizing the downside of complicated decisions often means giving something up. Purists and perfectionists struggle with that because they want it all.
Degree of rigidity might be the big difference between an enlightened leader and one who is hell-bent on the road to mediocrity.
Here’s an assignment:
First, make a list of all the business opportunities your company loses out on because it insists on having it all without giving anything up.
Second, make a list of all the arguments you have with family members because you are not willing to accept another’s less-than-perfect point of view.
Is there anything you might gain from moderating your pursuit of perfection?
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