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The Price of Perfectionism for Physician Leaders
August 14, 2019 at 12:00 AM
by The Physician Executive
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Last week, I received emails from two physician leadership coaching clients on the same day, both addressing the challenges of perfectionism. One wrote: "Being a perfectionist can be a stumbling block and something I must work on", while the other wrote: "However, if I can’t execute the idea perfectly, then it is worthless."

I got thinking about perfectionism and what it potentially costs us in our efforts to make a success of our lives.

How often have you talked yourself out of taking next steps because you’ll never get it right, so why bother?

As a belief, perfectionism is a double-edged sword. It keeps us striving towards an ultimate result, AND it also becomes the very thing that paralyzes us, with the fear that we will never measure up to some impossibly high standards.

There are two kinds of people

In his fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, author and psychologist Barry Schwartz describes two kinds of people – Maximizers and Satisficers.

Maximizers need to make the perfect decision. They research extensively, they scrutinize comparative charts, they bombard friends and colleagues for a dozen "second opinions," and they agonize over making exactly the right decision.

Satisficers, on the other hand, approach a decision with a threshold of minimum criteria that must be met – they know their basic needs. Once that threshold is crossed, they make their decision or take action without much in-depth evaluation of the various options. Whichever one meets their criteria first is the one they usually select.

What most intrigued was the clear evidence that satisficers rate their happiness with life significantly higher than maximizers do. They also score lower on depression screening. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that, since the "perfect decision" or "perfect result" probably don’t exist, the unfortunate maximizer is more likely to experience disappointment with the less-than-perfect outcome of his or her decision!

Although this book is written mostly about consumer choices, it reveals something about our psychological make-up and why the pursuit of perfectionism in the face of plenty of "good enough" options is so taxing to our well-being.

Consider abandoning perfectionism because:

· You can take advantage of the opportunity to get a head start. Given that most others will be agonizing over whether to switch careers to become a physician executive and that there is also a likelihood that at least one other person in the world is contemplating a similar move, by jumping in and getting going, you will have a "first mover’s advantage"!

· You will discover what it’s like to experiment and play. Being a perfectionist means you need to have figured out everything in advance of starting. This puts a big damper on creativity!! When last did you see a seven-year old who knew exactly what her sand castle would look like once she was finished finding decorative objects on the beach?

· You will shorten your learning curve. Contrary to expectations, being willing to learn from your own mistakes and those of others will speed up your learning, rather than hamper it.

· Your stress levels will drop. Wouldn’t it be a huge relief to NOT have to make the perfect decision, or start a business with the perfectly perfected idea? Imagine if you could make it up as you went, being open to help and insights from others, and enjoying the actual process instead of being hung up on whether you will get the intended results or not.

· You will have more fun. It seems to follow naturally that if your stress were less, and you were experimenting, playing and learning more quickly, that you’d also be relishing the experience a whole lot more – right?

· You’ll realize that most of your fears were the "False Evidence Appearing Real" kind. Lurking behind most perfectionists’ facades are fears – the insidious "I’m unworthy", "I might be rejected or laughed at" or "I might fail" kind. Dig a little deeper and you’ll be amazed to discover how much a creation of your own worried imagination these fears are.

· You’ll be able to laugh at yourself one day when you look back and see how much easier it was than you imagined. Self-explanatory – we are almost universally programmed to anticipate the worst and fill the gaps with the "negative"! I suspect this is true of even the most deluded optimists.

I think Anne Lamott said it best:

I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Which are you – a Maximizer or a Satisficer??