My colleagues and I in Career Services worry about some of you students here at Illinois Tech. Though “worry” might be too fearful a word. Maybe it’s better to say, “We have some concerns.”

Better yet, let me back up and set this in a positive frame, before we get to the critique-y part.

Our motivation and mission is to see all of you succeed, as emerging professionals as well as students, and we mutually share our advisees’ challenges and successes to tackle their problems, celebrate their victories, bolster team morale, and, yes, even toot our own horns just a bit. It’s a natural part of our office culture to confidentially and respectfully chat about our perspectives on students – the good, the bad, and the absurd.

Now let’s talk about the absurd for a bit.

Occasionally students will do some things that will have us shaking our heads and wondering what peculiar malignancy of fate left it to us, a handful of humble support staffers, to provide some critical life lesson to an otherwise intelligent and advantaged young adult who rightfully should have gotten the benefit of said knowledge long before matriculating at IIT, let alone walking into our office. Usually the issues we address are matters of minor detail – “You don’t say, The Chicago Manual of Style/IIT Editorial Style Guide has a rule for that revision?” – yet sometimes we glimpse a terrifying rift of educational misalignment gaping beneath the typical knowledge gaps. And then we must decide, if we can, whether to critique an errant approach by digging into its faulty foundation or to simply patch up the surface and let it go.

So, almost midway through this post, here’s the point: In order to succeed, you need to let go of perfection. Perfectionism is a weakness, not a strength. Stop thinking right now that it’s a clever dodge to humble-brag your way around the shopworn “What’s your greatest weakness?” interview question. Perfectionism is brittle, as it brooks no compromise or error. To the extent that it deters or prevents getting anything done at all, it is your enemy. It is a mirage of an oasis one thirstily pursues across a desert while groundwater flows right underfoot. In the trichotomy of Good, Bad, and Perfect, Good and Bad are siblings, members of the set {Finished Tasks} while Perfect is an alien, forever exiled to  {Imaginary Achievements}. Forget perfection. 

If you need to hear it put more bluntly, I can reiterate the message – just not in print. 

Instead of the goal being “perfection,” let it be “excellence” or “profit” or “a better mousetrap” or whatever. Let it be the pursuit of slack, if you like (I do). But for the love of all that is good and human, please do not make “perfection” your yardstick, or you will drive yourself and everyone around you insane. 

Whenever I encounter the perfectionist-striver tendency in an advisee – usually, though not exclusively, with respect to a draft document like a résumé or grad school application essay – I’m compelled to ponder why students put themselves into such a stressful cycle of overwork and second-guessing (as opposed to the perfectionist-slacker coping strategy of default, which takes no effort at all). My theory? 

Behind the insecure student’s insistence that “I cannot stop revising until my document is the best” is an entire history of unexamined assumptions about standards (i.e. who or what determines what is best) and unrealistic expectations of how the world works (e.g. society is a meritocracy; standards of quality are universal and transparent; payoff is directly proportional to effort; etc.) Some of this is attributable to the naïveté of youth, for which no one can be blamed. The abuse of youth by well-intentioned but purblind mentors is another matter, and with that I take issue. 

When a student asks me, a nearly perfect stranger, to say which painstakingly re-edited version of their own short-bio life story is “perfect” or “the best,” (who am I to dictate your story?) I can only infer ruefully that their teachers, formal and otherwise, have somehow failed them. 

First, because these students have been misinformed about the nature of perfection (again: it’s fictive!) as well as notions of superiority in academic and professional competition. They have been so aptly conditioned to the practice of more-or-less arbitrary numerical ranking in classroom settings that they cannot fathom the more rudimentary, gut-check process of qualitative judgment in a professional setting, which has only two “buckets” for ranking applicants on first impression: Good Enough and Not Good Enough for consideration. Any attempt at finer gradation beyond that level is such a miasma of subjective, speculative hairsplitting that to try to anticipate another’s judgment in terms of a precisely ranked “score” for one’s effort is a fool’s game. Again, this is not the fault of the inexperienced student. People have to be conditioned from a young age into such unnatural foolishness – miseducated, actually – so the blame lies squarely with their elders, who owed them a more practical strategic outlook for the gamesmanship of life than, “You’re always in competition and the ‘high score’ is the winner.”

Second, and more tragic, is the lack of confidence and agency such perfectionists suffer, as they surrender all judgment and potential control regarding their own value, relying solely on the approval of others to validate their efforts in what is ostensibly a pursuit of personal passion. Every choice they make seems to be externally driven: all the motivation, all the values, all the approval or corrections informing one’s critical process have been so amply supplied by other entities in this person’s life (parents, teachers, institutions, employers) that the hapless writer now has insufficient agency to declare, “This is my best effort to tell my own story” after the third collaborative revision and leave it at that. This is another point where perfectionism is revealed as a competitive weakness, since it robs the student-professional of authorial license and initiative.

There is no easy fix for this conundrum, but it is rather conceptually simple: just get something done and worry about the score later (or never). Seek out counsel, by all means, to help you polish the rough edges and stitch up narrative gaps, but first know that the story is yours and you are the only person who can decide when it best represents you. Then let it go!

 

David Work is an Illinois Tech Career Development Coach, specializing in résumé editing and advising Architecture students. He also suffers from perfectionism as a slacker/procrastinator sub-type. Keep him on his toes by emailing him at wwork@iit.edu for editorial help telling your own career story. 

When the Perfect Becomes the Enemy of the Good