"If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself..."
Ahhh, the Perfectionist's Creed. I love these words because I can predict with almost 100%-accuracy how many business owners and entrepreneurs and high-achievers have them playing in a loop in their heads pretty much all day long. (I know I would need to call on some high-order math if I wanted to count the number of times I've said or thought that.)
No one can close a sale as effectively as I can. No one can negotiate with a supplier as well as I can. No one can write a job listing as brilliantly as I can. And you know what else? No one can order printer paper as well as I can. No one can make coffee as well as I can. No one can tidy up my desk as well as I can. And no one can take out the rubbish as well as I can, either!
Isn't it amazing that I can do so many varied tasks better than any other of the 8-billion-plus humans who live on this planet or the few hundred thousand who live in my immediate vicinity or the tens of thousands who specialise in each one of these discreet tasks? Gosh, I really must be amazing!
Now hopefully you see what I'm doing here. Hopefully you've had a little chuckle while reading the preceding lines not just because of how ridiculous they are when you see them written down but because you potentially recognize some of that silliness in your own way of thinking.
I get it. We love to be in control. We love to get things done. We love having things done our way. And we are really, really, really good at some things, maybe even a lot of things. But perfect at all things? Is that even possible?
The more I think about it, the more I hear it from my clients, and the more I try to train myself out of it, the more I see self-proclaimed perfectionism as something quite different: laziness and anxiety in disguise.
Let me explain.
First of all, I think we can agree that doing anything "perfectly" is basically impossible because "perfect" is subjective. What I think is perfect, others might think sucks, and what they think is perfect, I might find seriously flawed. Perfect is a standard that we define and our definition will inevitably be different to someone else's.
Secondly, perfectionism is often used as an excuse for not doing something - "Oh, that website, will never be as perfect as I want it to be, so I may as well not build it"; "My business will never be as big as I want it to be, so I'm not going to start it"; "This marketing campaign will never capture everything I want to convey, so why bother planning it" - OR perfectionism is used as an excuse to keep doing everything yourself because you can't be bothered to TRY to delegate to someone else or TRY to find someone who might, just might, be able to do it at least as well as (or maybe even better... gasp!), as you can or TRY to have a difficult conversation with a colleague or a partner about how they can contribute more or improve.
Perfectionism maintains the status quo - you either don't do something or you keep doing everything - and the status quo is, well, lazy.
And perfectionism keeps you from addressing your (often baseless) anxieties. "It has to be perfect or people will never buy it"; "No one will execute my vision as perfectly as I can"; "If I don't do it, it won't ever get done"; etc, etc, etc. Do you see how these perfectionist anxieties can hold you and your business back?
Do you think Richard Branson comes up with new business verticals AND does the marketing plan AND does the pricing AND chooses the words for each ad AND makes the coffee? No!
Do you think Sara Blakely turned Spanx into a billion-dollar business by sewing each item herself AND building her website AND shipping her products AND ordering the paper clips for the office? Hell no!
So why do we? Why do we think we can grow a business AND do everything else? Why do we hold ourselves back by deluding ourselves that we are the exception to every rule of success (delegate, leverage, focus on what you're good at, test and iterate...)?
Are we really perfectionists? Or are we being lazy? Are we really perfectionists? Or are we just anxious?
Done is better than perfect. Trying is better than worrying. An imperfect business is better than one that stays in your head. Get something out there and improve, iterate, and - dare I say it! - perfect it later.
Be honest about what your "perfectionism" is costing you and your business, and then try, at least try, to hide behind the Perfectionist's Creed a little less often.
I have a confession to make: I am a people pleaser. I always have been. I was that kid in school who always got gold stars and straight-As. I was that annoying smarty-pants who would jump up and down in my chair with my hand thrust into the air to answer any question. I loved being the "teacher's pet" (and I was really good at it!), and that chronic-pleaser-syndrome has never gone away. (I think women suffer from people-pleasing more than men do, as we are socially and culturally encouraged to be accommodating and obliging - and sometimes called horrible names when we aren't -- but that's a topic for another day!).
Years ago when I was starting a business of my own, it felt like I never had enough hours in a day for myself, my health, my business, or my loved ones but somehow I still kept saying yes to requests and asks from other people, often total strangers. What was going on?
I can't pinpoint exactly when it was, but I remember there finally coming a time when I read somewhere (I think it was Heather McGregor who writes the Mrs Moneypenny column in the FT) that it wasn't just okay to say no, it was essential. And that if something didn't directly support my personal or professional goals, then I should say no to it.
It was like an epiphany. I suddenly felt the burden of my savior-syndrome start to lift. Of course I couldn't help everyone. No one can. We all have real constraints on our time and energy and need to be careful about how we invest that time and energy. The big and small things we say yes and no to have a very measurable impact on our lives and our success. Subtraction is often more important than addition.
Saying no wasn't easy at first (and I still struggle with it now sometimes). Saying no to people who asked for help made me feel like a jerk. But as one of my favorite business writers Denise Duffield-Thomas says, we can give how, and however often, makes sense for us AND our businesses and create boundaries around that giving.
I love that. Saying no isn't being mean or selfish, it's being realistic about the limits to how much I can and should give, and defining my "no's" and my giving clearly. So I've built generous giving into my business model: I do lots of free articles, You Tube videos, podcasts, webinars, and speaking engagements so I can help lots of people at the same time, and I do a set number of pro-bono hours to help a few budding entrepreneurs each year. And then, the rest of my time is devoted to private clients and our Members who I can help in a very targeted and tailored way.
After years of giving indiscriminately, I designed boundaries into my business. I had to think hard about how I could say no but still help as many people as possible (there's that chronic-helper-syndrome again!) and help in a way that felt sustainable and generous instead of leaving me feeling vulnerable and exploited.
But it took time, and thought, and some uncomfortable conversations for me to get (a little more) comfortable saying no, and now I am having a far greater impact on a far greater number of people. So in reality, saying no has allowed me to help more people and be more focused. Win-win.
So what can you say no to? What boundaries can you establish so you can say no to some things and yes to others? What amount of no-saying is right for you AND your business?
Warren Buffet didn't become hugely successful by investing in every business brought to him. He says no as a rule, and sparingly uses his yes's. (A great illustration of this is his "20-Punchcard Rule"... you can decide what your 20 punches will be in your business, in your personal life, in your health, etc, and say no to everything else.)
Now I can't promise that by saying no you'll become the next Warren Buffet, but I CAN guarantee that when you get better at setting boundaries and saying no, you and your business will become more focused and disciplined, and focus and discipline are two of the key ingredients of success.
So the next time you feel yourself tempted to say yes to something, take a minute and ask yourself if you should just say no instead.