Managing Self Wellness

Friday tips for perfectionists

Written by Allison Wolf

Does the way we train and develop young lawyers result in the legal profession having more than any one profession’s reasonable share of perfectionists?  I say that is likely!  Today on the Attorney at Work blog there’s a good post by Jamie Spannhake on the Top 5 Perfect Traits of Non-Perfect People.  In addition to Spannhake’s useful tips I have my own thought on the making the important shift to pursuit of excellence from the trap of perfectionism.

First it is critical to make the distinction between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence.

The distinction between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence exists in an individual’s mindset and beliefs.

Top performers are able to enjoy hard work and the pursuit of excellence. They understand that mistakes and losses will also be experienced along the way. Beliefs that drive the pursuit of excellence are that performance improves with experience. When errors or mistakes happen from time to time, top performers take it in stride more swiftly, solve the problem more rapidly, and learn from the experience.

An example of the mindset of a top performer can be found in a senior corporate lawyer who I will call Dennis. Dennis is quiet, thoughtful, and conscientious. Dennis is in his sixties and has a large stable of loyal clients who appreciate his understanding of their businesses and the considered and effective advice he has given them over the years. He is also a very good mentor. Last year a transaction for one of his clients closed while he was away from the office. Due to a mistake on an associate’s part a substantive error was made with negative implications for the client. When the associate came to Dennis to tell him about the error Dennis did not explode in anger, he just calmly said, “this is why we have insurance.” Then he worked with the associate to remedy the problem.

For perfectionists mistakes are absolutely unacceptable. Any mistakes or errors have a direct relationship with the person’s value as an individual. Mistakes equal failure. Were Dennis a perfectionist he would likely have mentally beaten himself up for what he would perceive as an unforgivable error of judgement, and would not have been able to maintain his calm so successfully.

Here are some of the common thinking patterns of the perfectionist – do you recognize any of them in you?

·       Anything short of excellent is terrible

·       I should be able to do/solve this quickly/easily

·       I am best handling this myself

·       I must find the one right answer

·       Errors, failure, mistakes are unacceptable

·       I have to do it all at once

Perfectionists for the most part suffer in silence. Part of the perfectionist mindset in an aversion to asking for help. Perfectionists often live with with various degrees of anxiety, and they are frequently unhappy with their work. Perfectionism ironically contributes to poor performance and can result in practice management issues such as chronic procrastination, billing write-downs, missed deadlines or repeated requests for extensions, poor mentorship, and a host of other problems.

The good news is there is a way back to joy and satisfaction. It is absolutely possible to shift from perfectionism to the healthy pursuit of excellence.  I have combatted perfectionist tendencies in my life and I have friends and associates who have successful tackled their own perfectionism. They key thing to understand is that perfectionism is really a series of thinking patterns associated with a deeply held belief. And as Dr. Carol Dweck says (see resources below) beliefs are just thoughts in our mind, and we can all change our minds.

Here are some suggestions on where to start:

  • Begin by reaching out to a counsellor, coach, or other trusted advisor speak about your challenge with perfectionism.  It is very important to have some support from another person.  When a perfectionist tries to change on their own, they bring all their perfectionist tendencies to the task, and the failure to change becomes another trigger for self-recrimination.  Many perfectionists try to change and then give up because they feel stuck and hopeless.
  • Read and watch the resources I list below.
  • Let yourself to be an imperfect perfectionist.  Acknowledge your drive for perfection but appreciate that in many instances it is not achievable and that is all right.
  • Choose one of your perfectionist thinking patterns and develop your own personal retort.  For instance my client had a habit of thinking “I have to do it all at once” and she developed the retort “it is better to get a start on it them wait for the perfect moment.”
  • With a thinking habit indentified, now focus it on a specific behavior or challenge.

For example John was a perfectionist with a desk covered with a backlog of filing.  The obstacle was that John was always waiting for the perfect time to tackle the filing all at once.  He decided to adopt the practice habit of dedicating just ten minutes once a day to filing.  John knew the mental obstacle would be his urge to do the filing in the best and most efficient way which for him was all at once.  When he started on his new ten minutes a day habit, sure enough, he was immediately struck by how inefficient it was to do just ten minutes.  But we had discussed this mental obstacle, and so he responded by saying to himself “something is better than nothing” and carrying out this new approach of ten minutes a day.  John was able to stick with his new practice habit and in two weeks his desk was clear.  This win, created positive evidence for him of the value of “something is better than nothing” and he then carried it forwarded into another area of his life.

Five useful resources for perfectionists are:

The ABA’s Grit Project toolkit

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The new psychology of success

Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress

And their TedTalks:

Do reach out to me for further information or resources, I would be happy to help!

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

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