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How to avoid perfectionism paralysis (and make it your greatest strength)

Sophie Meadows

I finished writing this article the week before Christmas. Since then, between mince pies and charades, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time wondering if it’s interesting enough. Is it original? Have I picked the best examples? The irony is not lost on me.

Perfectionism is defined as the “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” This state of mind is often a result of external pressures – a client or colleague you want to impress or a bottom line you need to impact. But ultimately, it manifests internally. It’s the irrational thought or feeling that what you’ve done isn’t good enough.

I approach this from the perspective of someone who is type one – characterised by perfectionist tendencies – and a Creative Strategist. This can be a paradoxical job role, driven as it is by a desire for strategic certainty in a creative, subjective space where there’s often simply no right or wrong. There’s just a series of more – and less – effective choices to be made.

Telling yourself your work isn’t “enough” is unkind and unhelpful, of course, but it’s the starting point of the vicious circle that leads to perfection paralysis. Or, as Forbes calls it, the “immobilising fear of failure”.

The starting point for navigating this fear is learning to identify the thoughts and feelings that underpin it. Another approach is to trick your brain into thinking it doesn’t matter if your work isn’t polished to perfection – like telling yourself that everyone’s too busy self-flagellating over breaking Veganuary on day four to bother reading your article.

Here are three other ways to free yourself from the shackles of perfectionism paralysis.

Tell the truth

One of the things that creates perfectionism paralysis in creative industries is the fear of not being able to create. But strategists – even creative strategists – don’t need to make things up. Our power comes from looking at what’s already there, seeing it for what it is, finding connections the client might have missed, and articulating all this in a way that resonates and, ultimately, provides a creative springboard.

Which leads me to a mantra that sits at the heart of the most powerful creative storytelling: tell the truth.

Recently, I worked on a project for Visiativ, a supplier of specialist software and services for manufacturers. The team had just introduced a new product, and tasked us with creating a visual identity and value proposition for the target audience. We quickly hit upon a problem. Our research found that the new product name was confusing both customers and employees.

Renaming the product wasn’t in our brief, but we decided to trust our relationship with the client and relay the problem. Happily, the client agreed. We developed a new name and built a stronger identity and value proposition as a result.

Trust the process (but keep your eyes and ears open)

As strategists, we’re taught to be magpies. We cherish the models, templates and slides that help us to organise our thoughts and ideas. We’re always on the lookout for ways to hone our craft and craft our briefs. But we also need to trust that living our lives – as curious, thoughtful, committed individuals – will give us the colour we need to fill in those templates.

I was reminded of this recently while working on a rebrand for a specialist accountancy firm.

After a round of stakeholder interviews, two strategy workshops and additional desk research, my challenge was this: capture the business’s heritage (as a bespoke, specialist accountancy for farmers and landowners) in a way that credibly allowed it to talk about broader services in sustainability (specifically, natural capital). Put more simply, how could we encourage landowners to see themselves as custodians of their land?

To my surprise, I found the answer in the closing pages of a book I was reading, Wilding by Isabella Tree. Tree (yes, that is her name!) writes how she and her husband felt a strong connection with their land and a huge sense of responsibility towards it. Their struggles to manage their land in a sustainable way (both for their family and the planet) weren’t in relation to how they saw themselves; rather, they lacked the confidence and skills to run their estate in the way they wanted.

This shifted how I thought about my own creative challenge: I didn’t need to persuade landowners they were custodians – because they already felt this way. This, in turn, led to the concept that linked both financial responsibility and natural capital for business owners and wealthy individuals: legacy.

When perfectionism paralysis strikes, it’s tempting to double down on much-used and reliable strategy tools. But it’s so important to keep an open mind and remember that insight can come from anywhere. Read. Watch. Listen. Look up.

State the obvious

One of the dangers of perfectionism paralysis for strategists is that it can lead to important insights being dismissed as being too “obvious”.

It’s useful to remember that our brains’ compulsion towards intuitive thinking makes plain speaking and clear articulation incredibly powerful. When it comes to writing insight or deciding how to frame customer messaging, tackling the blank page with obvious thoughts is a useful way of overriding perfectionism-induced panic. We can then build these ideas out by interrogating what else they mean or evolve the thoughts by articulating them in new ways. But don’t be afraid to return to the first thing you scribbled down.

Recently at The Frameworks, we developed a new business strategy offer; one where we combine our skills as creative facilitators and problem solvers with our clients’ deep contextual knowledge to arrive at new strategic directions for their businesses. We call this offer B2B reinvention.

From the start, a phrase stuck in our heads as a key promise: “the answer is in the room”. It’s not about us coming up with the final direction, it’s about channelling creativity and finding the answer that’s already in there somewhere.

When it came to talking about our offer, the line seemed like an important springboard, but it also felt like cheating. It felt too simple. But the more I interrogated it, the more my conviction grew that it was the right thing to say. It spoke to our insight that customers lack confidence when it comes to decision-making. With most competitors focusing on intangible innovation messaging, speaking to outcomes and emotional benefits would create cut-through.

You already have the answers

To worry is to be human, and to worry at work is part of what it means to be a professional. But when this tips into feelings of inadequacy or paralysis, it’s important to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings and make a conscious effort to seek ways around them.

Alleviate the pressure to create by revealing what is already there. Avoid questioning the process when you’re in the middle of it. Be open to inspiration from a variety of places. And be aware that just because something is obvious to you, it might not be to others.