Paralyzing PerfectionismBy: Andrew S
Semesters back, I had a visiting speaker tell our business communications class that there is no such thing as Writer’s Block. Many of my classmates (as well as myself) were taken aback at this bold assertion — because certainly, we had experienced and could discuss this common phenomenon. We knew intimately the experience, so how dare this speaker invalidate us?
But the speaker continued: “What you call writer’s block is nothing more than your refusal to write crap until you’re all cleared out.”
This seemed reasonable enough for writing (not that I heeded the implied suggestion for fixing writer’s block — I don’t want to be caught dead writing or typing crap, after all!), but I didn’t anticipate the implications elsewhere in my life.
This semester at school has been brutal. All of my teachers have supposed that it’s a really great idea to all assign group projects — without consideration of our workload in other classes. The fun part about these group projects, however, is that they all involve outside agencies and organizations — it’s not just about working on a report or a case together. It’s about helping a growing corporation diagnose what went wrong with its rollout of its new talent management software suite, or helping an understaffed museum advertise its very existence to the diverse constituencies of a county.
This has led to new pressures. Now, the pressure isn’t just to perform for one essay, or to perform for a teacher, or to perform in front of a class…in addition, our reputation, with the community, with the “real world,” so to speak, is at stake.
What I’ve realized here is that writer’s block — or at least, the pathological fear that produces it — certainly exists in this environment…and in a far stronger way. It’s one thing to produce crap…but it’s another thing to produce crap and present it to a stranger in the community, with whom you hope to work for a project and by whom you will be evaluated as a representative of your class, your university, your generation, and by who knows what other criteria.
How can you request a meeting with an elementary school principal when you aren’t sure what you want to say?
How can you be so sure what you want to say when you aren’t even sure what the team’s goals are?
How can you be so sure what the team’s goals are when you’ve never launched a promotional campaign before, and so you don’t know the costs or time requirements to launch one successfully, or even the best practices for reaching people? When you don’t know whether elementary school children can even be made to be interested in a museum that you yourself know you wouldn’t have been interested in when you were a kid?
Why are we taking marketing classes if they don’t give us any inkling of how to actually carry out anything like this? Why are we taking managing classes if we end up managing as we’ve always done before? What is the purpose of a business school?
What I’ve found interesting is the stark difference between my teammates and myself. I feel ashamed at my teammates for being unafraid to move forward without all the details; I feel embarrassed that their materials have flaws, that their presentations lack full understanding of the nuances, that their style is careless.
Why do these people want to sabotage our team?
(…as an aside, I used to wonder why companies used to release such shoddy products. I used to wonder why video game companies released games that had glaring control problems, or graphical hiccups. Wouldn’t they make sure to test more? Didn’t they have market research that could evaluate what consumers want before releasing the product and having reviewers thrash the product? Wouldn’t they make sure to have something that was absolutely wondrous out the door..? How could companies be so careless..!)
…but why is it then that when I confront others about this, instead, I am the bad guy?
My teammates are angry at me for only asking questions and standing still; they are upset that because I don’t know x, y, and z, I haven’t moved forward with what I know about a through w. What they tell me finally shuts me down, “We understand that we do not have all the information you want, but don’t you understand that if you do nothing at all just because you are afraid of doing SOMETHING wrong, you will have NO chance to do ANYTHING right?”
When I say I shut down, I shut down. I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. I tried to draft a response after the meeting. I tried to call to riposte. I tried simply to comprehend what they were saying.
But I couldn’t.
I had never thought about it that way.
(The reason why companies release less-than-perfect products is because if they demanded perfection, nothing would be released. One cannot account for everything…and even the things one can account for may not justify the time, resource, or expertise commitment required to address it. Perfection leads to scope expansion, feature creep, running over budget [a budget, I might add, that was probably made on educated guesses that turned out not to be so educated after all].)
I think I’m getting better. It physically, emotionally, and mentally drains me to try to do something with incomplete information. My blood still runs cold whenever I must answer a question with, “I haven’t thought about that; I’ll have to get back to you on that!” I have to turn away whenever I hear criticisms of my presentations or after-action reports that I know could have been fixed had I waited one more day…had I practiced one more time…had I bided my time just a bit longer. I withdraw after every presentation that I know could have been just a bit more polished, despite the fact that the audience can not perceive most of the flaws that I view as glaring.
I am recovering from paralyzing perfectionism.