The very ambition and drive that enable entrepreneurs to do big, bold and innovative things often carries with it a heightened risk of perfectionism, says Alexandra Solomon, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor in the department of psychology at Chicago’s Northwestern University.
Perfectionism, whose root is often one kind of fear or another—the fear of being inadequate, incompetent or merely seen as those things—is “a liability masquerading as an asset,” Solomon says.
The perfectionist can look like they’re pursuing excellence, when in reality they’re afraid of getting something wrong. “Perfectionism blocks creativity and innovation—you have to be willing to get it wrong, to grow,” Solomon says.
It can also add up to wasted energy. Life and wellness coach, Kim Holloway, based in Hampton Roads, Virginia, cautions entrepreneurs to pay attention to how perfectionism might be frittering away time and energy better spent on the customer than on small details. “You might get caught up in the nitty gritty details your customers don’t even care about,” Holloway says. “Make sure you’re doing [your work] from a user-centered approach.”
“The antidote to perfectionism is vulnerability,” Solomon adds. Entrepreneurs need a safe space to be able to look at how and why a business challenge can stir up “something core” in a person. As an example, she works with a business community of young professionals who get together to discuss the emotional and identity issues that arise around their work.
“Every entrepreneur needs a circle they can enter where they can let down and give voice to the tender stuff that comes along with any business challenge,” Solomon says.
This idea of tenderness, Solomon acknowledges, is often challenging to introduce to entrepreneurs, because vulnerability is often seen as weakness. “Anything where our story is seen as a weakness, we want to cut it out or get rid of it. But it’s more important to figure out how to work with it or meet it with something different.”
While one approach to the fear underlying perfectionism is to get to its root, through therapy or coaching, and understand it, Holloway offers another solution she suggests is more forward moving. “It doesn’t matter why you’re afraid, only that you are. Is there a willingness to face it and moved past it? Because we’re all scared of something.”
She encourages her clients to identify no more than two to three actionable steps or priorities each day to get out of the habit of excessive planning or worrying.
Additionally, Holloway often suggests an exercise in which she asks her clients to sit with the bad feeling beneath the perfectionism for five minutes. “Then, when that five minutes is up, take one little step.”
Solomon also recommends entrepreneurs take risks that show them that they can survive what might feel like failure. “Do something you suck at,” she encourages. It doesn’t have to be at work—maybe a painting class or dance. “Having experiences where you flub up and survive and can laugh about it is just an important softening experience to have,” she says. Especially if you can bring that same energy into work.
When all else fails, Solomon says, delegate. Not only does it aid perfectionism by taking tasks off your plate, it builds trust with other colleagues. “There are a lot of benefits from letting other people do something,” she says.
Ultimately, intervening on perfectionism is a process of discernment. “Perfectionism says everything is equal and must always be an A+ effort,” Solomon says. “It’s a practice of figuring out what can be let go of, what can be done with a little less excellence, and what is worth my attention.”