Harvard Business Publishing | September 1, 2009
According to the World Database of Happiness (yes, there is one), Iceland is the happiest place on earth. That’s right, Iceland. Yes, I know it’s cold and dark six months out of the year there. I’m just giving you the data.
The secret to their happiness? Eric Weiner, Author of The Geography of Bliss, traveled to Iceland to find out. After interviewing a number of Icelanders, Weiner discovered that their culture doesn’t stigmatize failure. Icelanders aren’t afraid to fail — or to be imperfect — and so they’re more willing to pursue what they enjoy. That’s one reason Iceland has more artists per capita than any other nation. “There’s no one on the island telling them they’re not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write,” Weiner writes.
Which makes them incredibly productive. They don’t just sit around thinking they’d like to do something. They do it. According to the psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, who wrote the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel but the ones we think we have.”
So if you think you’re good at something, whether or not you are, you’ll do it. The converse is also true: if you think you aren’t good enough at something, you won’t do it.
A friend of mine, Jeff, has wanted for some time to start a business teaching guitar*. But he hasn’t yet. Why? When you sift through his various explanations and excuses it comes down to one simple problem.
He’s a perfectionist.
Which means he’ll never think he’s good enough at guitar to teach it. And he’ll never feel like he knows enough about running a business to start one.
Perfectionists have a hard time starting things and an even harder time finishing them. At the beginning, it’s they who aren’t ready. At the end, it’s their product that’s not. So either they don’t start the screenplay or it sits in their drawer for ten years because they don’t want to show it to anyone.
But the world doesn’t reward perfection. It rewards productivity. And productivity can only be achieved through imperfection. Make a decision. Follow through. Learn from the outcome. Repeat over and over and over again. It’s the scientific method of trial and error. Only by wading through the imperfect can we begin to achieve glimpses of the perfect.
So how do we escape perfectionism? I have three ideas:
- Don’t try to get it right in one big step. Just get it going. Don’t write a book, write a page. Don’t create the entire presentation, just create a slide. Don’t expect to be a great manager in your first six months, just try to set expectations well. Pick a small, manageable goal and follow through. Then pursue the next.
This gives you the opportunity to succeed more often, which will build your confidence. If each of your goals can be achieved in a day or less, that’s a lot of opportunity to succeed.
- Do what feels right to you, not to others. My wife Eleanor is a fantastic mother to our three children. Sleep is extremely important to her and in her early days of parenting she read a tremendous number of parenting books, each one with different advice on how to predictably get children to sleep through the night. Each expert contradicted the next.
The only thing those books succeeded in doing was convince her she didn’t know what she was doing. It was only after throwing all the books away that she was able to find herself as a parent. It’s not that she found the answer. In fact, what helped is that she stopped looking for the answer.
What she found was her answer. And that allowed her to settle into her parenting. It made her calmer, more consistent, more confident. And that, of course, helped our children sleep better.
By all means, read, listen, and learn from others. But then put all the advice away, and shoot for what I consider to be the new gold standard: good enough.
Be the good-enough parent. The good-enough employee. The good-enough writer. That’ll keep you going. Because ultimately, the key to perfection isn’t getting it right. It’s getting it often. If you do that, then, eventually, you’ll get it right.
- Choose your friends, coworkers, and bosses wisely. Critical feedback is helpful as long as it’s offered with care and support. But the feedback that comes from jealousy or insecurity or arrogance or without any real knowledge of you? Ignore it.
And if you’re a manager, your first duty is to do no harm. A friend of mine, Kendall Wright, once told me that a manager’s job is to remove the obstacles that prevent people from making their maximum contribution. That’s as good a definition as I’ve ever heard.
And yet sometimes, we are the obstacle. As managers, we’re often the ones who stand in judgment of other people and their work. And when we’re too hard on someone or watch too closely or correct too often or focus on the mistakes more than the successes, then we sap their confidence. And without confidence, no one can achieve much.
Catch someone doing seven things right before you point out one thing they’re doing wrong. Keep up that 7:1 ratio and you’ll keep your employees moving in the right direction.
These three ideas are a good start. Don’t worry about following them perfectly though. Just well enough.