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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

The problem with perfect: When chasing perfection is bad for your career

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Thomas Curran

High standards are one thing, but people with perfectionist tendencies might be doing their careers — and mental health — more harm than good when they chase perfection. 

Professor Thomas Curran joined the Visiting Experts podcast to talk about his new book The Perfection Trap. In conversation with host Brett Hendrie, Curran explores how people can self-assess whether or not they're perfectionists, how they might break the cycle, and the risks to their personal lives if they don't. 

(You can also listen directly on Amazon, Spotify and Simplecast.) 

Three takeaways from this episode include: 

  1. How perfectionists view success and failure differs from people without these tendencies. Perfectionists tend to view successes as flukes, which creates a negative cycle whereby they can never find satisfaction in their accomplishments, and so they just keep chasing the next "win." They also get demotivated when faced with a failure in a way non-perfectionists don't. They're more likely to give up or self-sabatoge their next attempt, perpetuating the narrative that their best will never be good enough. 
  2. There are three forms of perfectionism — self-oriented (I must be perfect), other-oriented (others must be perfect) and socially prescribed (society says I must be perfect). All three have seen upticks since the '80s, but Curran's research shows socially prescribed perfectionism is on a sharp upwards trajectory. Society is increasingly telling us we must live perfect lives, and that will be dangerous and detrimental to everyone. 
  3. You can break the cycle of perfectionism, but it won't be easy. And part of the challenge is recognizing that life is hard — just eeking out an existence can be a challenge in itself.  "We're exhaustible fallible creatures, and feeling like we're good enough is almost the hardest thing to do in this culture," Curran says. "[Life is telling us] we have to focus on those areas in our lives where we are remarkable, and somehow hide and conceal those areas where we don't feel so good. That kind of denies an important part of our existence. The incomprehensible miracle of existence is enough, and anything beyond that is a bonus."

Give the whole episode a listen above!

New episodes of Rotman Visiting Experts are released monthly on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and Amazon. Desktop listeners can also tune in on Simplecast.

Would you rather read than listen in? Check out the full transcript of the episode here.

Like this podcast? Check out Rotman's other audio series, Executive Summary, which explores the latest research and insight from our faculty.  

Thomas Curran is a professor of psychology at the London School of Economics and author of the book The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough.