Perfection Is Neither a Weakness or Strength

perfection canstockphoto3240944Do you know the most commonly asked question at job interviews? It’s this: Name your greatest weakness.

And the most common response to that question? I’m a perfectionist.

The question is bogus and the response is cloyingly absurd. In defense of the interviewee, he or she is simply trying to turn a negative into a positive; but only the truly deluded could view perfectionism as a positive attribute. Perfection is illusory and its pursuit will inevitably lead to grief and disappointment. If you don’t believe it, consider the arc of Tiger Woods’ career. Woods was poised to reign as the greatest golfer of all time. His golf swing was a thing of beauty that combined power and finesse. But Woods was not content with an extraordinary swing. He wanted a perfect swing and he hired a succession of high-priced coaches to tweak and experiment with his mechanics. This ill-conceived pursuit of perfection resulted in a multi-year fall from the leaderboard to the middle of the pack. His extraordinary swing was a distant memory, and his perfect swing was a pipe dream.

I’m quite certain I know what you’re thinking: Even if perfection is unattainable doesn’t it still serve a valid and useful purpose as an aspirational goal? The answer is an unequivocal no. The quest for perfection does not allow for mistakes or failure. Perfection cannot accommodate risk because risk entails too great a possibility of failure. A far better approach to achieving maximum performance in any endeavor is the embrace of three simple tenets:

  • Focus on the journey not the destination. Perfection implies an endpoint; but not only is that endpoint unattainable, it also mitigates the joy and self-satisfaction of achieving new milestones and new personal bests.
  • Strive for continual improvement rather than perfection. All of the greatest hitters in Major League Baseball struck out far more times than they hit homeruns. Michael Jordan missed 50.3% of the shots he attempted (and 67.3% of three-point attempts), yet he is arguably the greatest NBA player of all time. Jordan certainly wanted to make every shot – and probably believed he could – but that was never his goal. He simply wanted to get better with every shot and every game. If perfection were his ultimate goal, he was an abject failure.
  • Learn with every step. The key to embracing weakness is to learn from our mistakes and failures, and we do that by attending to our errors immediately – as they occur. Brain research has identified two types of behaviors when a mistake is made. The first is ignoring the mistake and moving on. The problem with this approach is the likelihood of repeating the mistake. That’s why you’ll see PGA golfers take another swing when an approach shot goes astray. They want to recognize and feel the difference between a good swing and a bad swing. The bad swing is in their immediate consciousness. If they waited until after the round, they wouldn’t be able to compare the good and bad strokes. That approach by pro golfers exemplifies the second behavior type identified by researchers – focusing on the problem and determining how to correct it. Taken to its extreme, this idea of focusing on the problem can lead to “paralysis by analysis;” but as part of a well-rounded mindset it will help you use weaknesses as a foundation for growth and success.

So, what’s a better response to the “name your weakness” question? Be honest, be specific, and speak from the heart. How you answer the question is far more important than what you actually say. Plus, the fact that you can name a specific weakness – complemented with information about how you have or will overcome it – demonstrates comfort with introspection and critical thinking. It demonstrates the ability to see the big picture – the forest and the trees. And it demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt that your goal is to contribute to the greater good by continual assessment of your skills and an ongoing game plan for improvement. That’s as close to perfection as you can ever get.

(Excerpted and adapted from 20/20 Mind Sight.)