High Hopes and Shooting for the Stars

Recognizing and balancing perfectionist tendencies in our journey for continuous development Kelly Hennigan

The pursuit of perfection surrounds us in various facets of our lives—in a “perfect world,” eating right and exercising would ensure “perfect health” and enable us to shed those last 5 pounds to reach the “perfect weight.” Stores would carry “perfect-fit” clothing to guarantee the “perfect outfit” for every occasion. Our holiday greeting cards would feature our “picture-perfect” children, who are academically known for attaining a “perfect score” on their SATs, as well as their extracurricular successes with their “pitch-perfect” singing voices and ability to pitch a “perfect inning” or—better yet—a “perfect game.”

Reflecting on all of this perfection amounts to a “perfect storm,” because, in reality, we need the courage to recognize perfection is not truly attainable. Perfectionism actually can hamper our success! Rather than striving for the “perfect life,” we should focus on our development and strive for continuous improvement—both professionally and personally.

What is Perfectionism?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French writer, journalist and poet, said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” In psychology, perfectionism is defined as a personality trait whereby individuals set excessively high performance standards in their quest for flawlessness. Those who are perfectionists typically are passionate overachievers with high hopes and soaring aspirations—they want to shine the brightest and shoot for the stars.

The perfectionism trait may be driven by birth order, gender or upbringing. According to Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book, firstborn children and only children tend to exhibit perfectionist instincts when compared to children ranking in subsequent birth order. (When I asked my mom why I exhibited several of the perfectionist traits I mention later in this article, her response was, “It was inevitable, with two perfectionist parents and being a firstborn … forgive us!”)

Women are more likely to be perfectionists than men, as women typically strive to be 100 percent certain in their ability to predict an outcome. For example, women will apply for a job only when they meet all of the job requirements, while men will apply if they meet 60 percent of the qualifications.1 Finally, an individual’s developmental years may contribute to a predisposition toward perfectionism, particularly if the home life or school setting extolled successes and penalized failures.

While perfectionists are enthusiastic about what they do, their fervor can quickly turn into fixation. Perfectionists usually are overly critical during self-evaluations and place undue emphasis on external perspectives. Oftentimes, the qualities associated with perfectionism can be physically and mentally detrimental and ultimately interfere with living life, as described later in this article. However, in some situations, attributes of perfectionism can be beneficial. For example, aspiring to a lofty goal can be motivating.

To measure perfection, psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett created a Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. The scale measures three aspects of perfectionism:2

Icon 1The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale
measures three aspects of perfectionism:
1. Self-oriented perfectionism
2. Socially prescribed perfectionism
3. Other-oriented perfectionism
  1. Self-oriented perfectionism is defined as putting high personal expectations upon oneself (e.g., an individual setting a work deadline that is unrealistic based on the resources available and time frame). These individuals have a harsh inner voice that tells them to keep trying and to accept nothing less than excellence.
  2. Socially prescribed perfectionism occurs when an individual’s behaviors are unduly influenced because of society’s expectations (e.g., the peer pressure a high school student might face to wear only brand-name clothing). In recent years, this type of perfectionism has been trending upward, and this is likely due to the rise of social media and other factors influencing younger generations. To epitomize this, singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette once said, “In L.A., where I live, it’s all about perfectionism.”
  3. Other-oriented perfectionism is characterized by a person believing those around them should also live up to high expectations (e.g., a manager who puts in weekend hours to finish a project and also assumes the project team will devote their weekends to completing the work).

Individuals may exhibit one or more of these three “symptoms” of perfectionism, which can be self-inflicted, imposed by external forces or outwardly projected.

Characteristics of a Perfectionist

“I have to say that I’ve always believed perfectionism is more of a disease than a quality.”
—Rowan Atkinson, actor, comedian, screenwriter

Some typical characteristics3,4 of being a perfectionist—both positive and negative—are also traits commonly attributable to professionals in the actuarial, finance and insurance industry. In particular, being detail-oriented, results-focused and law-abiding is common among this population. As previously mentioned, some of these behaviors are also more common in first-born children, only children and in women:

  • Detail-oriented. Like actuaries, perfectionists are known for their attention to detail. They pick up on imperfections in their work product, in themselves and in others. At times, they can drown in the minutiae without contemplating the true level of detail needed by the end user (e.g., does the answer need to be in decimal places or rounded to the nearest million?).
  • Results-focused. Perfectionists want to be productive, solve problems and use their analytical skills to arrive at an accurate result. (Sound familiar?) They are propelled by the fear of not reaching their aspirational goal, and success is achieved only by accomplishing the original ambitious target.
  • Law-abiding. Perfectionists like rules, which they follow and believe others should follow, too. Perfectionists operate well within corporate governance structures and, akin to the detail-oriented characteristic, ensure their final work effort is an upstanding product with all of the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed.
  • Fear of failure. As surrealist painter Salvador Dali stated, “Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it.” Perfectionists frequently set overly elevated goals that are completely idealistic, and they work tirelessly to achieve them. Unlike a high achiever who can be satisfied with a job well done when they come close to hitting the mark, an “almost perfect” or “just a hair off the bull’s-eye” outcome equates to failure for perfectionists.
  • Procrastination. Due to this fear of failure, perfectionists become immobilized. At times, they will not take any action at all out of apprehension that whatever they do, it will not be the best. Or, they initiate a project and have trouble completing it due to not being satisfied with the end result, and they perpetually fixate and spend more time on what could be done to make it even better.
  • Defensiveness. Perfectionists do not take constructive criticism well, as being critiqued indicates their work was not perfect. This is somewhat analogous to the fear of failure personality trait, as perfectionists are afraid to disappoint.
  • Low self-esteem. By nature, perfectionists are very critical of themselves, which can result in unhappiness if their high expectations are not met. This can be isolating, intimidating and can push others away—giving the appearance that perfectionists are introverts.
  • Lack of trust. Perfectionists struggle with trusting others to complete tasks, and therefore they rarely delegate. They prefer to work independently, as they want to ensure the job gets done the right way—their way.

When by themselves, many of these characteristics may be viewed as beneficial—particularly if you are on the receiving end of a perfectionist’s output! Just the right amount of perfectionism can result in a polished, high-quality work product that goes above and beyond. However, when several of these traits are aggregated together, it can become problematic.

Perfectionism and Health

“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there’s no such thing as perfect.”
—Brené Brown, research professor, author

Icon 2One survey found 86 percent of workplace failures are due to a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication.

Perfectionism is directly attributed to impacting an individual’s mental and physical health, due to the relentless and chronic stress associated with being a perfectionist. The pressure felt by perfectionists ultimately can lead to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, eating disorders and even suicide, based on research published in 2014 in the Review of General Psychology. In a U.K. study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill of more than 40,000 American, Canadian and British college students conducted from 1989 to 2016,5 socially prescribed perfectionism was identified as the most devastating of the three variations of perfectionism previously discussed. During this time span, the study found the proportion of people exhibiting these perfectionism traits rose by as much as 33 percent. However, recent cohorts of students are found to exhibit all three strains of perfectionism, as they are more demanding of themselves, believe others to be more demanding of them and are also more demanding of others.

Collaborating to Achieve Perfection

A Clear Company survey cites 86 percent of workplace failures are due to a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication.6 In considering this statistic, I recalled I had a manager who commented that each time I shared my work, it was a “ta-da” moment. I was always prepared (to be honest, overprepared) for our scheduled update meetings. Thinking back on it, I put too much emphasis on using our time together to showcase my progress over the week and my capabilities to perfectly execute. Rather than using these sessions to demonstrate I produced a perfectly polished work product, I instead could have brought a partially explored idea to our conversations. We then could have leveraged the discussion into a brainstorming session and an opportunity for further collaboration—which may have resulted in an optimal end product.

University of Michigan professor Scott Page, who was a speaker at the 2017 Society of Actuaries (SOA) Annual Meeting & Exhibit and the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, writes about the topic of cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity is the philosophy that a group of individuals who have different styles of problem-solving will collaborate to produce better decisions and more optimal outcomes. Page believes that when “solving a problem, cognitive diversity can trump ability, and when making a prediction, diversity matters as much as ability.” Each of our backgrounds and uniquely formed experiences equates to a cognitive diversity “toolbox,” which includes varying perspectives, heuristics, interpretations and predictive models. When we collaborate and work with individuals who approach problems with their own distinct toolboxes, we are more likely to make better decisions and innovations.

Overcoming Perfectionism

As actuaries, we all have likely been asked this question regarding our exam passing history: “Did you ever get a perfect 10?” (Which is typically followed by, “If you did, you WAY over-studied!”) Throughout my exam-taking years, which spanned at least two exam system conversions, I scored a 10 once. I failed the Course 110 Probability and Statistics exam after repeated tries of consistently and frustratingly receiving a four or a five each sitting. I ultimately passed with a perfect 10—a prime example of perfectionism not paying off … I would have been thrilled to have passed with a six—preferably on the first try!

Icon 1Be courageous, have high hopes and shoot for the stars. Focus on achieving your greatest potential throughout the journey toward your vision, rather than getting to the ultimate destination.

Ariana Huffington, a Greek-American author, columnist and businesswoman, once said: “The fastest way to break the cycle of perfectionism … is to give up the idea of doing it perfectly—indeed, to embrace uncertainty and imperfection.” For those who exhibit signs of being a perfectionist, becoming aware of the issue is the first step toward overcoming it. In setting goals, ensure they are realistic and achievable. Recognize that people are imperfect, and individuals make mistakes—we all are “perfectly imperfect,” and failure can and will occur.

In itself, failure is not a weakness. Rather, it is how you react to the failure that matters. Failure quickly turns into success if it can be learned from and result in a developmental opportunity, or failure can perpetually ruminate and cause self-doubt. Be courageous, have high hopes and shoot for the stars. Focus on achieving your greatest potential throughout the journey toward your vision, rather than getting to the ultimate destination. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill summarized it best: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Kelly Hennigan, FSA, CFA, is vice president, head of Investment Operations, at Venerable. She is currently a contributing editor for The Actuary magazine.

Copyright © 2019 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.