The Upside of Perfectionism? Creativity.


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Alice Boyes for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Michael Blann/Getty Images

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Perfectionism is a poor master but a good slave. It has downsides if you let it take over: you waste time on relatively unimportant decisions, you get excessively annoyed with yourself over small mistakes, which drains you, and, because you expect others to conform to your standards, you sometimes make collaboration more difficult.

However, perfectionism isn’t all bad. Part of what lures people into its grasp is that it sometimes pays off, like a slot machine does. It’s intermittently reinforced, and that pattern tends to be very sticky.

It’s also why perfectionists resist when told they need to change. The idea that perfectionism is a negative quality they should drop isn’t consistent with their experience. If perfectionists instead recognize both the up- and downsides, they are more likely to see a path forward in which they can turn that quality up or down depending on the situation.

The most obvious ways perfectionism can benefit people relate to when (a) cautious strategies prevent mistakes and (b) highly competitive situations in which a tiny margin in performance is the difference between being on the right or wrong side of a cutoff (e.g., for admission to medical school or in an interview for a highly competitive job). However, a largely unrecognized benefit of perfectionism is that it can enhance creativity. Here’s how.

{This is the first example.]

1. You’re bothered by evidence running counter to your own (or the consensus) opinion.

I’m currently writing my next book. Here’s how that process typically goes: As I’m researching, I’ll read a bunch of studies that back up what I want to say, and then out of the blue, I’ll read one, or a snippet in a study, that runs counter to my planned argument. Part of me will want to gloss over this, but for my inner perfectionist, this is like having sand in my shoe. Whatever doesn’t make sense will bother me until I go back and figure out a way to reconcile it with the other research I’ve done. But, when I have to figure out how to combine seemingly dissonant ideas, my thinking and writing become more innovative.

Perfectionists find it harder to ignore “the emperor has no clothes” situations in which the herd has settled on a way of thinking but there are flaws in that consensus. Their tendency to ruminate and inability to block out intrusions can be helpful in challenging the status quo.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


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