Redefining Success: Perfectionism as only one tool of many (Part II)

We are multifaceted beings, but we can lose sight of that when one aspect of our personalities or identities becomes dominant. One place this can become a serious problem is in the case of perfectionism and our definition of success.

Perfectionism can be a useful aspect of ourselves. Being extremely picky about the quality of our work can make our work shine. However, perfectionism tends to be a tyrant when we identify it as our entire way of being and when we don’t know how or when to rein it in. In other words, I can spend an extra hour or two fine-tuning an important presentation, but when that level of scrutiny and criticism starts to invade my down time or won’t let me stop working when I really need to be done, it is more like a cancer to the spirit than a cure for dreaded mediocrity. It does not always stay within useful bounds and seems greedy to infiltrate areas where it does not serve us.

When I say to myself, “I am a perfectionist,” the limitation here is in believing that is all that I am. The thing we need to do to counteract this is to notice that there is a part of us that can observe the perfectionist. That part, that observer, is a part that may also be able to identify other parts of us. What are your other parts? Are you also playful? Creative? Able to be present to others? Take a moment to list some of the other aspects of yourself that might be at play in your life and might have a useful role in how you define success. 

Success looks really different through the eyes of a creative process or a playful process or a mundane/rote process. For example, if I’m brainstorming for a novel, success may be several pages of scribbled notes, with only a few useful ideas, but those ideas are the writing gold that will serve as the first stage of my writing project. If I want to spend time with my son, it’s clearly more successful to me if we’ve had a fun time and gotten done some of our tasks than if we’ve checked off everything but not had an emotionally connected time. And there are, of course, some things that don’t deserve the level of intensity that tyrannical perfectionism insists upon: cleaning the toilet, sweeping floors, raking the yard. Good enough is truly success in those situations.

Not every process benefits from the scrutiny of perfectionism, and it’s not always a useful tool to pick up. My coaching question for the client who struggles with perfectionism is this: which tool would they like to pick up at any given point? If perfectionism is the best tool to serve your goals, then by all means, use it. However, there are many other tools in your tool bag, and you can always gain more of them. Allow yourself to get into Master Carpenter mode, where all the tools can be used to their greatest potential, rather than relying solely on the hammer of perfectionism. Success does not lie in crushing everything under the pounding of unrealistic expectations; it lies in employing the right approach to the right problem.

Step back. Look at the many aspects of your personality and the tools you possess. Which ones will you employ, and where will you do so? How does success look different when you employ more than one tool? 

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Redefining Success – Part I

At the end of the day, most people I know do not feel successful. Despite the fact that they’re working non-stop and reaching many of their goals, they don’t feel successful. I’d like to offer some thoughts from both my coaching practice and my personal experience to help us all feel more successful at the end of the day. 

What and who defines success for you?

Most of us think we know what success is, until we try to put it into words. Then it starts to sound ridiculous. Is success really about ticking off every item on your to-do list? Is it really about getting everything done perfectly? 

One of the things I ask my clients to do is to is to ask themselves what defines success at the end of their day. If you work for yourself (and a lot of my clients are freelance writers or otherwise entrepreneurial), you’ve got to meet a couple of metrics at the end of the day in order to be successful.

1) Your own standard of work. If you work for yourself, you no longer have a boss telling you how much to produce each day, either in terms of product or money. You set the barre. Where is that barre for you? How much money? How many words? What does a “productive” day look like for you? Are you a tyrant, or are you being reasonable with yourself? What makes your work meaningful, and have you taken some action toward producing that meaningful work or planning for it to become a larger part of your workday over time? 

If you are familiar with SMART goals, you know that vague, unrealistic goals don’t even count as goals. They need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive. These metrics are meant to keep our goals truly reachable – and workable in the larger scheme of life.

2) Your client’s standard of work. There’s a reasonable argument that can be made that you no longer have a boss, but now every client is a boss. Personally, my own standard here is this: I have to please enough of my clients to meet my financial goals and professional goals. Sometimes, I will run across a difficult client. Maybe I could please them, if I twisted and contorted myself to meet their unrealistic expectations. Maybe they are only difficult because they are difficult for me to work with. Does it mean I’m a failure if I can’t please them? Perhaps the best thing I can do for myself, my sanity and for that client’s project success is to fire the clients who don’t work well for me (and for whom it’s way too emotionally or time expensive for me to work well for them) and to find better clients. I feel good at the end of the day if I’ve referred them to a better fit coach or writer. I don’t have to please everyone, but I have to please enough of them to reach my goals, and I want to do that in a way that makes sense for me.

What about the Big Picture?

At the end of the day, success is about more than work and money. What other parts of life need to be nurtured for you to feel successful?

I’ve got two big areas of life that I need to attend to. I’ll share them with you, and I ask you to consider what needs to be on your list in order to feel your life has been successful, apart from your work 

1. Self-care. If I don’t attend to my self-care, I will eventually cease to be of use to myself, to my family or my clients. On the physical side of things, I need to eat well, drink enough water, exercise, and sleep enough. If these things are in place 95% of the time, I’m going to be a sustainable operation. If I don’t, I risk breaking down. If my self-tracking shows I am neglecting these things more than 5% of the time, I need to put on the brakes and re-evaluate, pronto. 

The other aspect of self-care is my emotional and spiritual self. I need to journal, create art, pray and meditate at a frequency that nurtures my emotions and spirit. If I do these things with 95% success, I’m going to chug along really well. If I break down more than that, I’m headed for trouble.

2. Family. My husband and my son are my two top people. If at the end of the day I have connected with them, know what’s happening with them and been present and supportive of them, that is a successful day. I will not always connect with them at the same depth, but we have times scheduled together that are vital to these relationships being solid and working. If I’m showing up for them in space and time, with my attention fully engaged, then that is critical aspect of a successful day.

What about the rest?

There’s a lot more on my list to do every day. It includes things like house cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, financial tracking, getting dressed, shuttling my son to karate and piano lessons, and so on. I’m going to get a lot of those things done on most days. However, if I’ve taken care of my self-care, my primary relationships and the core values of my business, the rest is gravy. I can rest at the end of the day knowing I’ve been successful. There will always be more to do. However, my success does not depend on getting everything done in perfect fashion. It relies on furthering my core directives in life and business. 

Questions for You

What is success for you? How can you redefine success so that it works for you and your life as you find it now? Is someone else’s standard of success driving your sense of satisfaction? How can you take back ownership of your satisfaction with your life?

Redefining Success: Part II – The Tyranny of the Inner Perfectionist