How to navigate mistakes and imperfection in the new year

It’s no surprise that accounting professionals tend to be exacting about their work. Balancing the books leaves no room for error, and accuracy is an essential component in a firm’s value. It’s also no surprise that people who spend their careers getting things just right apply that same logic to themselves. To put it another way, perfectionism is a common condition among accounting professionals. If you’re not a perfectionist, you probably work alongside a few.

To the perfectionists out there, don’t worry. I’m not about to tell you to stop striving to do your best work, but I do want to warn you about the dangers of applying perfectionism too strictly. When you are unrelentingly hard on yourself, when you can’t forgive even the slightest mistake, when you view every failure as the end of the world, you keep yourself from growing, which is what a healthier perfectionism should be about in the first place.

How perfect is too perfect?

Unlike other common workplace diagnoses — burnout, toxicity, discrimination and the like — perfectionism is not necessarily something to be banished from the modern office entirely. As a comprehensive overview of research from the Harvard Business Review notes, perfectionism has pros and cons. “Taken as a whole, our results indicate that perfectionism is likely not constrictive at work … Yet, critically, we found no link between perfectionism and performance. This, coupled with the strong effects of perfectionism on burnout and mental well-being, suggests perfectionism has an overarching detrimental effect for employees and organizations,” the study states.

What does this tell us? Well, it basically says that if you can manage your internal perfectionism to the point where it doesn’t mess with your mental health, you needn’t worry about it. However, given the documented medical effects of perfectionism, it’s important to not apply your rigor to others, especially if you lead a team. Expecting a lot of yourself and others is fine, but that can’t metastasize into a situation where everyone is walking on eggshells, mortified about making even the smallest faux pas. True leadership is not creating a situation where your team makes zero errors; it’s one that achieves great results. The 2016 Chicago Cubs, for example, committed over 100 errors and won the team’s first World Series in over 100 years. I think they’d say they were pretty happy about not expecting perfection.

Mistakes will be made

Think about how many discrete operations you perform in a day. I’m talking about every email you send, every piece of data you put in accounting software, everything. How many actions do you think that is? Dozens? Hundreds? Maybe even thousands? When you are doing that many actions, no matter what they are, you will err from time to time. Even the best server in the world has spilled champagne on somebody’s lap — when you wait on thousands of tables in a year, that’s just going to be how it goes. The same is true in our world, though we’re all too often loathe to admit it.

When you or someone on your team makes a mistake, you have to be willing to forgive and move on. In my experience, the people whom perfectionists have the most trouble forgiving is themselves. To be able to do so is an important skill, and one you can learn with a little practice. It’s easy to say that you should view failures and screw-ups as learning experiences, but it’s difficult to do in practice. Sometimes, it’s helpful to develop a routine that will give you a formal structure within which to let your emotions go. Personally, when I do something that really irritates me, I take a moment to do some mindfulness meditation and come to terms with my mistake. If not, I’m liable to barrel ahead, and those buried feelings come back up in the form of stress.

Letting go to get better

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Boyd Search, president and CEO of the Georgia Society of CPAs, and he told me a great story about how he got his first job even after screwing up his phone number on his resume. “The first big lesson [of my career] was that you're not going to get things perfect. Maybe a little humility and forgiveness of yourself is a good thing,” he said. That’s a lesson that’s served him well, both for himself and in his mentorship of other accounting professionals.

“You're not going to get everything right at home. You're not going to get everything right at work and you're not going to get everything right for yourself. The quickest way to move past any mistakes you've made is to forgive yourself. I think that's a big deal,” he later added. Isn’t that the truth? If we don’t forgive ourselves, we will dwell on tiny mistakes and make proverbial mountains out of molehills. To truly improve, we need to free ourselves from the burden of self-incrimination. You can be bummed at yourself for an error, sure, but it shouldn’t send your world crashing down.

It’s OK to want everything to be perfect, but only if you understand that it isn’t going to be. When you view perfection as a noble but impossible goal, you’ll find it a lot easier to forgive yourself and others. That, to me, is perfectionism 2.0.

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