Perfect vs. Good Enough

It is tough to be a perfectionist in an imperfect world.

Several years ago, when I was a pizza restaurant manager, I had a problem.  I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted the restaurant to be spotless.  I wanted the pizzas to be made to spec.  I wanted the stock rotated so that the first in was the first out.  I wanted my employees to be on time, to be dressed according to the code, and to know their jobs.  I wanted smiles.

I wanted my customers to be happy, the bank deposit to be made on time, and the produce to arrive when it should. In short, I sweated the details because I was a perfectionist.  But that’s a good thing, right?  Maybe not so much.  That year my staff had a birthday surprise for me when they presented me with a gift.  I unwrapped the long slender package and inside was a riding crop. They were only half-kidding.

Some years later I returned to college to complete two degrees, I was put on several group projects. Group projects are a big part of the Master’s program at just about every college or university.  It is supposed to build teamwork, to use the synergy of actively involved MBA candidates to solve difficult problems or cases. I usually (maybe because of my age and management experience) ended up as the head of these groups. The perfectionist in me would rear its ugly head and drive those poor students relentlessly.  I was successful, since I had to have the “A” and we usually got it.  But when I look back at the times I bullied and harassed those youngsters—many of whom just wanted to have beer and pizza with their friends on a Friday night—I realize that I was letting the grade cause me to miss out on life.  I wish I had gone with them for pizza and beer more often, and come back to the project on another day.

Some managers might tell me that I needed to be a perfectionist–that managers by their nature have to drive people, have to uphold standards, have to go where the average staff member won’t. But often I was the frustrated one. When I was a manager at a large convention hotel in Atlanta, I had to try to motivate a staff that just wanted to make some cash and go home.  It left me stressed and overworked, for the perfectionist in me wouldn’t let me leave until everything was as “right” as I could make it. While everyone else was at a party, I was in a walk-in cooler wiping down shelves.

The problem with being a perfectionist is that the world isn’t perfect.  People—whether staff or students—aren’t perfect. And when we drive them to be, we sometimes set ourselves—and them—up for failure.  And of course, when we can’t control our lives and make things perfect, we have a bit of a meltdown.  That has happened to me on numerous occasions.  For my own health (stress can kill the perfectionist) I had to learn to know when “good enough” was about all I could expect.

There are times when you must pull back.  I’m not talking about rewarding half-hearted efforts.  I’m talking about recognizing when a person has done just about the best they can do.  It may not be perfect, it may not even be up to “spec,” but when they look up and smile with that expression that says, “How am I doing, Boss?”, that in and of itself is something to be happy about.

How about it, perfectionists?  Have you had a similar experience?

© Wade Kingston