A Coaching Power Tool By Xiuyu Feng, Executive Coach, UNITED STATES
The Idea of Progress vs. Perfection
A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. Albert Einstein
For many of us who strive for excellence, it is so easy to get caught up in the idea of perfection. This often leads to either procrastination or unwillingness to try something new. Before we realize it, we may have been spending all of our time perfecting every little detail to “get ready” or simply sitting there worrying about all the potential failures we are going to encounter without actually moving forward.
If instead, we accept that there will always be room for improvement, then even if things do not go exactly as planned, progress can still be made one step at a time. Then step by step, we would find ourselves already come a long way from where we started.
Progress vs. Perfection Definition
What Is Perfection?
“Perfection” refers to the condition, state, or quality of being free from all flaws or defects or an exemplification of supreme excellence. Those who are obsessed with perfection usually hold a fixed mindset believing that things are going to stay where they are and changes are rare or almost impossible. Chasing for perfection is usually considered as a valuable virtue of relentless pursuit for excellence. However, if it becomes the sole focus, it will in many ways hinder us from achieving our goals.
First, perfection is rigid and inflexible, and sometimes exhausting. By focusing on perfection, we tend to set binary criteria and attach our self-value to the results. When the target is met, our self-esteem will be greatly boosted and the motivation will be strong. However, if the target is missed, our self-esteem will collapse and the motivation might be greatly damaged. For example, in a corporate setting, if we set the success of a promotion to be the target, then when the promotion is landed, we would feel energetic and motivated, but if the promotion is not successful, we would feel unmotivated and uninspired, deny all the progress made so far, and sometimes would not even be able to focus on the projects at hand. These negative emotions tend to dampen our enthusiasm, which makes it tough for us to stay in the course.
Second, perfection leads to procrastination and slows us down. Perfection can be a progress killer. It can make us feel like everything on our to-do list should be perfect before moving forward. Oftentimes we stay put, wait for the perfect time, the perfect person, the perfect place, or the perfect position to come to take action, and this waiting can be endless. For example, an artist wants to create a Youtube channel to market his vlogs but constantly worries that the current one is not perfect. Even though he shooted tons of vlogs, he has never put anything on his channel as the “perfect” one has never arrived. The high expectations of the pre-conditions made it heavy for us to move forward.
Last but not least, perfection discourages us from trying new ideas and stepping out of our comfort zone. It tends to focus our attention on what’s not working and the not-enough, which leads us to constantly worry about the potential failure we are going to encounter if we make any changes. The chasing of the “flawless” theory would encourage us to stay in the same place. This may make us feel safer, but also will deprive us of new possibilities. For example, an engineer working in a well-established tech firm in the Bay Area is interested in joining a startup to accelerate his growth, but he worries about the instability associated with the decision. Hence he never dared to apply but stayed in his “boring job” executing repetitive tasks day by day. The fear of being “not perfect” makes it harder for us to step outside of our comfort zone.
What Is Progress?
“Progress” means striving towards something but accepting that there will always be room for improvement. Even if things do not go exactly as planned, progress can still be made one step at a time. Those who value progress are embracing a growth mindset. They accept where they are right now and are relentless about learning, growing, evolving, and improving. As long as there is progress, they don’t have to wait till a certain goal is achieved to be content as every step is fulfilling.
Striving for progress over perfection can make it easier and more enjoyable to achieve our goals in many ways.
First, progress is more sustainable and motivating. Life is like a flowing river and it changes all the time. There will always be new challenges and obstacles that will sway us from our original path. If we focus on perfection, it can be frustrating at times when things are not going according to our plan. But if we focus on progress, we would be more flexible and ride with the tide, focusing on overcoming obstacles, but still staying in the course. All big goals will be decomposed into walkable steps and nothing seems impossible.
Second, progress encourages learning and celebrates growth. Life is a journey with ups and downs. If we are too obsessed with the results being failure or success, then we would either paralyze when facing multiple failures or try our best to play safe and avoid any failure by all means. However, if we believe we can always learn something from each setback, then life would be so much more liberating and we would be more courageous to take on challenges.
Last but not least, focusing on progress leads to more stable self-esteem. A perfectionist often switches to a self-criticism mode when falling short of a goal. Their inner voice would diminish their self-worth whenever things go wrong. If this happens too often, it will easily lead to low self-esteem and consequently giving up on achieving goals. Focusing on progress, on the other hand, would help us appreciate the progress we made so far when looking back, recognize our efforts and self-worth, and keep us motivated to move forward.
What Causes People to Be Obsessed With Perfection?
At the core of perfection is usually fear – fear of failure, fear of judgment from both oneself and others. Perfectionists usually set high expectations on themselves and attach their self-worth to the realization of those expectations. Implicitly, they believe being perfect means not making mistakes. In their mind, if they ever make any mistake, others would look down upon them and their self-value would also decrease. In other words, they have a low level of “self-acceptance”, believing that they are only good enough if certain conditions are met. Instead of looking inside oneself to find strength, they usually turn to the outside to seek approval or evidence of self-value.
The underlying belief behind a perfectionist is usually a fixed mindset. The lack of confidence in being able to make changes or improvements would easily lead to excessive obsession with finding the perfect state, to begin with.
How to Break Out From Perfectionist Thinking?
Step 1. Awareness Building
First, we need to be aware of when we think from a perfectionist perspective. Some questions we can reflect on to build awareness include:
- What are some things you are currently procrastinating on because you think the time/person/condition is not perfect yet?
- When is the last time you beat yourself up for a misstep?
- Have you ever given up on a new opportunity because you want to play safe?
- Have you ever been bothered by a relationship and thought that everything would be perfect had you chosen a different partner?
- When reflecting on those situations, what emotions are you feeling?
Step 2. What Is the Underlying Belief?
When we catch ourselves thinking from a perfectionist perspective, ask ourselves
- “What are the underlying beliefs behind the thinking?”
- “Is there any fear behind it?”
- “Am I attaching any self-worth to the results of the situation?”
Step 3. Reality Checking With Byron Katie’s “Four Questions” Framework
Most of the time, perfectionist thinking stems from worrying about the uncertainty of the future. On such occasions, we can leverage Byron Katie’s four steps of self-inquiry to help us check the reality. This involves asking four simple questions about the belief that causes us pain:
- Is it true?
- Can you know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without this thought?
Step 4. Perspective Shifting
When we see the limitations in our underlying beliefs, we can challenge ourselves by asking questions from a “progress” perspective:
- “What’s still worth celebrating even if things didn’t go exactly as planned?”
- “What are some of the things I’ve done well that I can acknowledge myself for?”
- “What can I learn from this experience regardless of the result?”
- “Had I not worried about being perfect, what could be different?”
Step 5. Creating Actions
Sometimes all that is missing is a pathway forward. Breaking the “mission impossible” down to bite-size steps and focusing on conquering them a step at a time would make it much easier to move forward. This requires several steps:
- Set realistic expectations
- Prioritize tasks
- Make time and effort for each step
- Check learnings along the way
Step 6. Positive Reinforcement
Take some time to reflect on what happens when you change your perspective. Ask yourself:
- “Do I feel more joyful?”
- “Does it become easier to move forward?”
- “Do I feel more liberated?”
- “Do I feel more motivated?”
Last but not least, creating metaphors for ourselves can also help to embrace a progressive mindset. For example, constantly practicing the thought that “Nobody is perfect, and I am good enough” will lead us to value progress more than perfection.
Empower the Client to Focus On Progress vs. Perfection
As coaches, we can empower our clients to make positive shifts by bringing the perspective of “progress” to what they do and making it easier for them to move forward. We can achieve this through sharing an observation, asking a question, exploring a different point of view, or walking through some extreme scenarios.
Help the client to explore the feeling of fear behind the high expectations or procrastination, recognize these feelings and the underlying beliefs when they come up, and ask questions to help check the reality. This exploration will help the client to break out of the non-fact-based illusions in their mind which prevent them from moving forward.
Here are a few ideas to help support your client to create a shift in perception:
- “I noticed you mentioned “not good enough” multiple times, when will it be good enough?”
- “What do you want to recognize yourself for in whatever progress you’ve made so far?”
- “What can you learn from this experience regardless of the results?”
- “What would you do if you had your courageous hat on?”
- “Given the situation is not perfect, what’s the worst thing that can happen if you take action right now?”
- “If you have everything you need right now, what would you do as a next step?”
In coaching, sometimes the only thing that is needed to get the client to move forward is to take action. So helping the client to make a detailed plan and setting up proper infrastructures to make sure the plan will be executed will empower the client to create momentum and motivate them to keep going.
Progress vs. Perfection as a Coach
During each coaching session, it is paramount to the success of the role as a coach to focus on progress instead of perfection as well. If the coach focuses on asking the perfect question, sharing the perfect observation, or hosting the perfect session, then we will not be present with the client. This will also add an extra layer of anxiety and pressure to the whole coaching journey. If instead, we focus on progress, then we will be on a joyful journey of constant learning and growing.
Dweck, C. S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
Mitchell, B. K., Mitchell S. A. Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life
Charland, A. M. Focus on progress, not perfection