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? 


What’s it going to take for you to be successful in 2014?

What are your goals for 2014? What do you want to accomplish with your business, your creativity, your family, your health?

A lot of folks wait until New Year’s Eve to determine their goals for the following year. We all have a sense for how effective that is, don’t we? We all know that most New Year’s resolutions are long forgotten within the first 90 days of the year.

If we want our goals to become reality, we’re going to need to step up our game. If we want to reach our goals in 2014, we’re going to need to start planning. Now.

What do we need to have truly effective goals?

First of all, goals share certain qualities that differentiate them from dreams, hopes and visions. Goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Sensitive. Saying, “I want to make more money in 2014,” is not specific or measurable. Saying, “I want to make $100,000 in 2014 via my freelance writing work with a particular type of writing client (you name it) working 20 billable hours per week,” is specific and measurable. Why do goals need to be SMART? If they don’t have these qualities, there is no way to assess whether we’ve reached them! They remain vague, and we can wiggle out of accountability about our goals: if we aren’t too specific about the goals, we don’t have to be specific about our successes or our failures.

The “attainable” portion of SMART is about knowing ourselves. Are you able to work the hours you need to work to meet your financial goals if you are also a single parent with health problems? You may need to prioritize which goals come first and whether they happen this year or next or the year after that. You’re the CEO of your own life: you have the power, and you also have the responsibility that goes with it.

“Relevance” is an interesting one, too. This is where your goals intersect with the reality you live in. Is it your goal to go on a family vacation to Disney – with your high school children? Is that goal relevant at this point? Is your passion for cassette tape technology relevant to your technical writing goals? Are your goals directly linked to your passions and values, or are they simply co-opted from your parents or teachers?

A goal also needs to be time-sensitive. When will you earn that $100K? When will you reassess your progress (weekly? monthly? quarterly?).

Next, goals can be broken down into tasks that go into our calendars. They are translated from ideas into the actions we take in time and space. Our task list for the day should be directly linked to the goals of the week, month, quarter and year. If they aren’t, we have to ask ourselves why those things are in our calendars. Life is short, and the things we choose to do for work, for play, for connection and for growth should be in alignment with our ultimate goals and callings. If they aren’t in alignment, then we live a reactive life: we follow the agendas others set for us and the next shiny object to cross our paths, rather than the agendas we set for ourselves. Some people are very happy to do this, and it’s entirely up to them. However, if you don’t want to be that person, then it’s time to work on those goals and their subsequent tasks.

What happens when you hit resistance – either from within or in your surroundings? What happens when you set goals, you break them down into tasks, and you find yourself procrastinating, feeling anxious or overwhelmed, or you’re failing at reaching your goals? Or what if you’re the kind of person who is paralyzed at the goal-setting level: there are so many options, how do you choose?

First of all, welcome to the human race! If you haven’t already read my blog posts on procrastination, fear, overwhelm and perfectionism, now would be a good time. The question isn’t about whether you will experience a breakdown but rather when. And it’s okay. Take a deep breath and allow yourself a big dose of compassion.

Next, identify where the breakdown occurs for you, and begin to work with it with curiosity and compassion. We often can’t solve our problems because we’re too busy berating ourselves, hiding the struggles and feeling bad about them. If we can stop that reaction, we can begin to look at the nature of the problem and to look for solutions.

Lastly, curiosity and compassion will take you worlds beyond the possibilities that exist in shame and hiding, but they will only take you as far as your own perspective will allow. The next important ingredient is to open up your situation to others who can provide new perspective. Go to your wise friends, advisers, therapist, coach, social networks, and start opening up your problem to others. Get feedback. Get outside your own head and see your problem from a new angle. From there, you will discover opportunity open to you and your future that you never imagined possible.

Your goals and the tasks associated with them will bring up every fear you ever had; every type of resistance you’ve ever encountered; every fault you’ve ever hidden. The difference between the successful person and the unsuccessful one isn’t that they don’t have faults: it’s that they were courageous to try something new, despite their flaws. They gave themselves permission to pursue something worthy of pursuit without waiting for someone else to give them permission.

And if you’re waiting for permission, allow me to help: go for it! It’s time to set those goals for your next year.

When we’re sidetracked from our goals

One of my coaching clients recently shared that she felt like an “imposter” because she wasn’t meeting her freelance business goals. She went on to share how her family dynamics had changed recently, due to her husband’s job change; how her childcare was not as reliable as she’d originally expected; how resistance to her requests for help from family made her feel under-valued. Her daughter was having problems in preschool, and Mom was worried about the girl’s sense of well-being. There was more, and she listed what was happening around her.

I started off by validating that she had a lot on her plate. Many of the women I coach share similar stories: they carry the lion’s share of the household responsibilities, the emotional well-being of their children and spouses, the childcare coordination and, on top of that, they’re trying to build a business. It’s a lot to manage.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story, however, was that an instructor in a class my client had recently taken brow-beat the attendees: if you aren’t working daily toward your goals, you’re failing, she’d more than implied with her instruction. My client walked away feeling guilty and unsure whether she could even call herself a writer.

Are our goals important? Is it essential to work toward them daily to bring them to fruition? Are we imposters if we have to set aside some goals for others?

Are our goals important? To this question, the answer is a resounding “yes!” Our goals and all the tasks that are necessary to fulfill them are important. However, I frequently encounter clients who use their goals as yardsticks against which they find themselves continually falling short. Our goals are important, but we need to remember that they are our goals. We make them. We make them in order to build a life and a business we can love and that will satisfy our callings and financial needs. If our goals aren’t fitting with our existing lives, we are the CEOs of them: we can change them, adjust them, put them on hold. The most important thing we need to do, if we do adjust them, is to do it intentionally and to keep the dreams alive that fueled them in the first place. 

One client I coached wanted to revive a side business, one that was based on her primary career. However, in our coaching, she had a heart-to-heart with her heart. It told her that the two deaths and another life-changing tragedy in her immediate family (in a very short period of time) still needed some time to heal before she launched into a new venture. She decided, as a result of this work together, that she would write her ideas on pieces of paper and tuck them into a box, to use later, when she was ready. Her solution kept her dream alive, but it also gave her time to wrap-up unfinished emotional business, first. 

Is it essential to work toward our goals on a daily basis? My answer is this: yes and no. 

Our goals, if we’ve done them well, include more than our business success. We have bodies that sometimes have health problems; we have families that sometimes experience emergent challenges; we have hearts and spirits that sometimes need us to slow down and pay attention to their needs; we have unforeseen financial challenges that require us to take a part-time – or full-time – job in order to address the problems. We are more than a one-track goal machine. We have many aspects to ourselves, and our goals need to reflect this. Do we need to work on our goals daily? Sure, we do. But sometimes the part of our lives that requires attention now may not be our freelance writing. Work on your goals daily, but know that it’s no less legitimate to focus on your health and well-being or your family’s well-being for a time so that, later, your freelance writing business can have your full, energized attention.

Are we imposters if we set aside some goals for others? My previous answers address this question, in part. One other thing I would add, though, is that the “imposter” label also reflects our paradigm for how we view ourselves. Our language and our perspectives that fuel it are essential elements to weathering a change in our immediate goals. When we have to change our goals or their timing in order to deal with something else, we may grieve the loss of that goal. How do we treat our friends and colleagues who are grieving? Most of us tend to feel compassion. My questions for the “imposter,” are these:

How can you see yourself, your current situation and your newly-adjusted future with compassion and kindness?

What words would you use to describe a friend or someone you love dearly who found themselves in a similar situation? Can you give yourself permission to use the same words for yourself?