Quality Blog

Jim's Gems: Perfectionism vs. High-Achievement

April 23, 2012
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Most quality professionals don’t focus on being just good, but being perfect. Is that you? If you’ve ever wondered whether or not you’re a perfectionist, there’s a good chance you are one, at least to a degree. Perfectionists are a lot like high-achievers, but with some key differences. These differences are important, as perfectionists tend to experience more stress, more disappointment and less success.

What is so bad about being good? Nothing at all. But trying to be perfect can cost you a lot in terms of mental health, harmonious relationships and job advancement. You see, people who can mobilize themselves in the face of tough problems are usually people who tend to be high-achievers and who don't worry about being perfect. They are happy to move ahead with a partial solution, trusting that they will invent, or discover, the rest as they go along.

Perfectionists are far more critical of themselves and of others than are high-achievers. While high- achievers take pride in their accomplishments and tend to be supportive of others, perfectionists tend to spot tiny mistakes and imperfections in their work and in themselves, as well as in others and their work. They hone in on these imperfections and have trouble seeing anything else and they’re more judgmental and hard on themselves and on others when failure does occur.

Perfectionists will try to tell you that their relentless standards drive them to levels of productivity and excellence that they could not otherwise attain. But often just the opposite is true. Perfectionists typically accomplish less, because they waste so much time paralyzed by needing an overwhelming amount of data because of the fear of failure. They tend to not start anything until they know how to finish it without any mishaps, and that is a critical mistake.

Even though they don't know exactly how they are going to do something, high-achievers keep their visions of the end-result uppermost in their minds and forge ahead. They believe that they will get the help they need, find the resources they need, and figure out the how-to's as they go-and they usually do.

Perfectionists, like high-achievers, tend to set high goals and work hard toward them. However, a high- achiever can be satisfied with doing a great job and achieving a level of excellence, even if their goals aren’t completely met. Perfectionists, on the other hand, will accept nothing less than perfection. Being almost perfect is seen as failure.

Essentially, high-achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals by a desire to achieve them, and are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, however, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them, and see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure.

If, for some reason, they do not achieve the outcome they wanted, high-achievers don't waste energy beating themselves up. They simply learn from the experience and move on. High-achievers believe that progressive improvement beats postponed perfection. This is why high-achievers tend to be leaders, not followers.

Quality professionals tend to fall into the perfectionist’s category, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be high-achievers as well. We need to decide to be less than perfect without compromising our integrity. This is very doable. All it takes is a commitment to accept less than perfect and focus on the bigger picture.

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Charles J. Hellier has been active in the technology of nondestructive testing and related quality and inspection fields since 1957. Here he talks with Quality's managing editor, Michelle Bangert, about the importance of training.
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