Earlier this week I wrote about how perfection is the enemy of having a dinner party. (Slight tweak from the usual phrase “perfection is the enemy of good.”) And just after that post, I wound up falling down a rabbit hole of content about the dangers of perfectionism.

Perfectionism can alienate you from others, because there’s an arrogance and “I’m working harder than you” inherent in it.

Perfectionism can inhibit people from achieving success.

Perfectionism can lead to serious anxiety and depression.

Perfectionism can even be an under-recognized cause of suicide.

Perfectionism should be a warning sign—not only when hiring employees or looking for a mate, but in our own psychology. If someone gives that cliched answer of “I’m too much of a perfectionist” in a job interview….They are actually describing a real fault not dodging the question.

To build a company, create great original works of art, or do anything ambitious that scares you, you have to be able to shake off failure. Silicon Valley loves to go on and on about how great failure is. But a willingness to embark on something that could fail is inherently at odds with perfectionism.

If we agree that perfectionism isn’t some humble brag, but something dangerous, consider the gender overtones to perfectionism at work. When you may be the only person who looks like you on the management team, how much room for error do you feel you have? When only 3% of venture deals are gonna go to female CEOs, can you wing a pitch meeting? You are by definition beating extraordinary odds. How do you do that without aspiring to perfection?

Witness also the motherhood penalty and the fatherhood bonus in the office. Men are cut some slack and thought of as great guys when they miss work to take a kid to the doctor. Women are expected to work harder to prove their fidelity to an employer. When men become fathers they go from being viewed as “cold/competent” to “warm/competent”—the best quadrant in terms of assessing qualities of great leaders, according to Amy Cuddy. When women become mothers they go from being viewed as “cold/competent” to “warm/incompetent”—they gain warmth but are also viewed as less skilled.

Working mothers walk a tightrope between being a bad worker or a bad mother. Americans expect something well beyond mere “perfection” for working moms. Are you 100% available to your boss or 100% available to your child? At best, you can succeed at one of those. Working fathers are not asked to make this “choice.”

And this is where all that guilt and shame comes from. Ambitious working women who have been counted out their whole life are good at adjusting to a new normal. We are fine sucking up crappy odds and accepting that mere survival at work is having to be that much better than everyone else. We don’t dwell on the unfairness of it, because where does that get you? And so—especially when we become mothers—we frequently internalize this mandate of “beyond perfection” as another non-negotiable part of the to-do list.

We even give it new labels—like “having it all!” What a euphemism! “Having it all” makes it sound glamorous doesn’t it? Like we’ve won some sort of prize not been saddled with an unrealistic expectation of what “success” is.

That phase is a flash point for women, and rightly so. I’ve been asked before if I “have it all” and I always flub the answer. If you say you do, women who struggle in any way descend with torches and pitchforks. While I get the emotional reaction, I’m likewise frustrated by the women who detail why you can’t have everything you want, implying you shouldn’t even try. To me, that sounds like the perfectionist who can’t achieve success because they can’t handle anything that isn’t some unrealistic ideal.

What is so great about that ideal anyway?

I feel fulfilled and happy and challenged every day of my life. I am happier as a working mom than I’ve ever been professionally or personally. I live on the edge of “got dis” and “JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL.” And that’s my happy place. It’s not easy, and that’s why it’s so exciting and fulfilling.

I struggle to get across that my version of “it all” is the very antithesis of perfection. Look at my hair, my house, my kids’ socks on any given day to see how much I revel in the disheveled self. To the point where another mom at my kids’ school remarked that when she sees me on TV it doesn’t even look like me. That if it weren’t for the lower-third, she wouldn’t really believe it.

She’s right, because it’s not me. That person sat in makeup for hours, showered and put more than two seconds of thought into what she was wearing that day.

Perfect hurts. If you are holding yourself to that standard, read all that research above and be nicer to yourself.


Sarah Lacy

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