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When I was growing up, my mom often said that no matter what grades I got in school, as long as I did my best, she’d be proud of me. Then she added, “But if you didn’t get an A, I’ll know you didn’t do your best.” She said it with a smile, but I took it seriously: I shouldn’t settle for anything less than perfect.
It’s one thing to care about attaining success and avoiding failure. I’m guessing you wouldn’t want a heart surgeon who was content with doing an adequate job. But perfectionism takes expectations to a whole different level. I’m not talking about the line people use in job interviews. My greatest weakness is that I’m too much of a perfectionist. It’s much more extreme than that.
Perfectionism is the desire to be impeccable. The goal is zero defects: no faults, no flaws, no failures. It’s my college classmate who was so enamored with his perfect SAT score that his email handle was IGot1600. It’s the students who still display their 4.0 GPAs on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles a decade after graduation. It’s the friends who appear to be living their best lives online but hide their physical and emotional scars in shame.
There’s strong evidence that perfectionism has been rising for years across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Social media clearly hasn’t helped, but the spike started in the 1990s—a full generation before anyone was posting curated images on Instagram. In an increasingly competitive world, kids face growing pressure from parents to be perfect and harsh criticism when they fall short. They learn to judge their worth by the absence of inadequacies. Every flaw is a blow to their self-esteem. I’ve lived it myself.
When I won the fifth-grade quiz bowl on world explorers, I beat myself up afterward for missing one question. How could I forget that the sea route to India was discovered by da Gama, not Magellan? When I made the finals of a Mortal Kombat tournament and won a lifetime pass to a local movie theater, I didn’t celebrate. Third place is the second loser. When I set the curve on a math test, I was disappointed. Only a 98? Not good enough.
Perfectionists excel at solving problems that are straightforward and familiar. In school, they ace multiple-choice tests that have a single right answer and fill‐in‐the‐blank questions that allow them to regurgitate
facts they’ve committed to memory. Michelangelo’s marble architectural membering was set within a thin, blue-gray pietra serena molding. That line is still emblazoned in my brain from the weekend I spent studying for a final exam as a college freshman, and I have no idea what it means.
The real world is far more ambiguous. Once you leave the predictable, controllable cocoon of academic exams, the desire to find the “correct” answer can backfire. In a meta-analysis, the average correlation between perfectionism and performance at work was zero. When it came to mastering their tasks, perfectionists were no better than their peers. Sometimes they even did worse. The skills and inclinations that drive people to the top of their high school or college class may not serve them so well after they graduate.
The people who go on to become masters in their fields often start out with imperfect transcripts in school. In a study of world-class sculptors, it turned out that they were mostly average students. Two-thirds graduated high school with Bs and Cs. A similar pattern emerged in a comparison of America’s most influential architects with peers who had fallen short of transforming the field. The great architects had rarely been great students: they typically finished college with a B average. Their perfectionistic colleagues had gleaming grades but went on to build far fewer glistening buildings.
In their quest for flawless results, research suggests that perfectionists tend to get three things wrong. One: they obsess about details that don’t matter. They’re so busy finding the right solution to tiny problems that they lack the discipline to find the right problems to solve. They can’t see the forest for the trees. Two: they avoid unfamiliar situations and difficult tasks that might lead to failure. That leaves them refining a narrow set of existing skills rather than working to develop new ones. Three: they berate themselves for making mistakes, which makes it harder to learn from them. They fail to realize that beating yourself up doesn't make you stronger—it leaves you bruised. The purpose of reviewing your mistakes isn’t to shame your past self. It’s to educate your future self.
I’m not fully cured of perfectionism. I’m still in recovery. But I’ve learned that the goal isn’t to be the best—it’s to keep getting better. The true test of excellence is not how many defects you can erase from your work. It’s whether you’re proud of it.
From HIDDEN POTENTIAL by Adam Grant, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Adam Grant.
In an illuminating conversation with Oprah, Oprah Daily Insiders, and organizational psychologist Adam Grant, we explore how to tap your potential and achieve greatness at any age. Become an Oprah Daily Insider now to access this conversation and the full “The Life You Want” Class library.
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