How to Overcome Perfectionism at Work: Change These Habits

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Linchpin" by Seth Godin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Want to know how to overcome perfectionism at work? Which perfectionist habits are the most damaging in the workplace?

In Linchpin, author Seth Godin teaches you how to overcome perfectionism at work by practicing a new, empowered way of thinking—the “linchpin” mindset. Godin’s aim is not to teach you a new way to act, but rather a new way to think about your work, leading to healthier, more successful habits.

Read on to learn how to overcome perfectionism at work, according to Godin’s advice.

Overcoming Perfectionism at Work

Most people strive to do their work perfectly. However, in Linchpin, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin argues that perfection is actually a bad thing—it’s a sign that you’re not being innovative enough. If you’re able to do a task perfectly, it means that you’re meeting someone else’s specific ideal expectations. However, the work that truly impacts people (and therefore is truly valuable) is that which hasn’t been done before. Instead of seeking perfection, Godin argues that you should learn how to overcome perfectionism at work by trying to do something original and impactful, even if it’s flagrantly “imperfect” by traditional standards.

(Shortform note: Forgoing perfection doesn’t necessarily mean you should completely discard existing standards of quality. As Brian Christian and Thomas Griffiths explain in Algorithms to Live By, the most successful works of art are often the result of a brainstorming phase of completely uninhibited creativity, followed by a refinement stage in which you select the “best” ideas from that brainstorming and discard the rest. This process can help you produce work that’s innovative enough to catch people’s attention, yet familiar enough for people to recognize it as high-quality.)

Here are a couple of tips on how to overcome perfectionism at work by adopting healthier habits, according to Godin.

#1: Try to Remain Emotionally Indifferent

According to Godin, being a linchpin means seeing your work as a gift and becoming emotionally invested in the effect it has on others. However, if you want to learn how to overcome perfectionism at work, Godin also offers the paradoxical advice to remain emotionally indifferent if your work is rejected by those around you or fails at positively impacting others. 

If you’re only emotionally invested in a single positive outcome while you work, you’re preparing to be upset if it doesn’t happen. This emotional lens warps your perception of the world and causes you to make harmful mistakes. Often, people who hope for a specific outcome deny the unpleasant realities in front of them to avoid negative emotions, causing them to ignore problems that they normally would be able to solve. For example, if you really want to believe that your boss has you in mind for a promotion, you may convince yourself that they’re more impressed with your work than they really are and neglect to put in the effort needed to get their attention.

Additionally, Godin argues that if you’ve already failed and there’s nothing you can do to fix it, spending time and energy worrying about that fact will only make it harder for you to work on your next project. To cultivate indifference in the face of failure, remind yourself that accepting what you can’t change and moving on is both the rational and productive thing to do.

How Ancient Stoics Embraced Tragedy

How is it possible to care about your work while you’re doing it and to celebrate if it succeeds, but simultaneously be able to remain unshaken in the face of total failure? In The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday draws on ancient Stoic philosophy to argue that no event is necessarily good or bad—rather, it depends on the meaning you attach to it. Additionally, he states that you have the power to choose for yourself whether you’re going to interpret an event as good or bad. By choosing to see the upside and opportunity of a tragedy, you can decide to be grateful for it rather than entirely distressed by it.

If you practice focusing on the positive aspects of an ostensibly terrible outcome, you’ll find it easier to stop worrying about it and move on. For example, if you’re heartbroken by the death of a grandparent, you can use the tragedy as a reminder to treasure the time you still have with your parents. Shared grief may bring you closer to your emotionally distant siblings. You could even use this event as a reminder of your own mortality and start living life to the fullest.

Holiday also offers advice on how to think clearly while you work and avoid clinging to a single outcome: Intentionally visualize what could go wrong. As Godin mentions, many people try to avoid thinking about potential disasters, leading them to ignore problems they have the power to solve. Viewing these disasters neutrally rather than with anxiety will help you prepare for the worst without being a hopeless pessimist.

#2: Follow the “Perfect Is the Enemy of Good” Rule

According to Godin, the rarest skill—the primary one that distinguishes linchpins from non-linchpins—is the ability to regularly finish projects and present them to the world on a predetermined schedule, no matter how “good” they turn out to be. Set a deadline for every single project you set out to create. Then, even if your work doesn’t turn out how you wanted it to or it doesn’t feel finished, release it into the world when the deadline arrives.

This skill is vital for learning how to overcome perfectionism because most people are afraid of presenting imperfect work. Consequently, they spend too long working on their projects and usually never finish them at all. Regularly sending out imperfect work is surprisingly effective, as imperfect projects often unexpectedly turn out to be a complete success despite their flaws. The proof of this process’s efficacy is all around us: We can see that people who create truly influential work typically do so only after publishing a massive amount of other work.

(Shortform note: In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon takes Godin’s argument a step further: Don’t just share your work with the world on strict deadlines—share your work with the world every day, letting people see your creative work in progress. By sharing your unfinished work, you can attract an audience and make valuable professional connections immediately, rather than waiting until you have something “perfect.” These resources will help you get to the point where you can make a living with your art, so the sooner you can accumulate them, the better.)

Linchpin Work Is Purposeful Practice

Godin emphasizes that creative masters succeed because they’ve created so much work (and if you work enough, some of it will be successful). However, it’s likely that these artists become masters because this quantity of work serves as purposeful practice

In Peak, Anders Ericsson explains that practice alone isn’t enough to improve your skills to an advanced level: You must practice in a particular way. One of the key features of practice that actually improves your skills is that it stretches you past your comfort zone and is consistently difficult. Godin’s linchpins who finish work on a schedule are doing this: By innovating and overcoming the boundaries of what their work can be, linchpins are constantly challenging themselves rather than focusing on perfectionism and repeatedly creating the kind of work they’re comfortable with.
How to Overcome Perfectionism at Work: Change These Habits

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  • Why you must become a "linchpin" if you want to create work that changes the world
  • The steps you can take to become a linchpin
  • How bosses can nurture and manage linchpin employees

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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