Sometimes when I work with my clients to understand what can go right with their projects, I ask them to describe the perfect outcome or the perfect process. I think the word “perfect” invokes a state of mind that removes barriers to or inhibitions in expressing what could be possible. If you can visualize what it will be like when things are going perfectly, you can get closer to it. But, “perfect” also makes people nervous. If I describe the perfect outcome, am I setting myself up for failure? How do we balance striving for an inspiring picture of what can go right with the risks of aiming high?
I remembered an episode of “Taxi” where Reverend Jim changed his life, briefly, by becoming the perfect cab driver. He overheard a conversation in his cab on “dynamic perfectionism” – reaching your goal by doing every little thing perfectly – and applied it. If you Google the term “dynamic perfectionism” two search results pop up at the top of the list – the 1981 “Taxi” episode, and an article by Debra J. White titled “The Dynamics of Perfectionism: Fear of Self-Compassion.
In the “Taxi” episode, “Zen and the Art of Cab Driving,” Reverend Jim transforms himself from the worst to the best cab driver in New York by practicing the “dynamic perfectionism” methods he overheard. Jim, typically in a hilarious fog, clearly imagined how to provide perfect cab rides, and acted on his vision. Delighted customers showered him with tips and extended rides. By the end of the episode, Jim achieved his goal – I won’t spoil it until the end of the post. You can watch Jim’s journey to perfectionism currently posted on You Tube (update – you can’t watch it on YouTube anymore, but look up Season 3 Episode 13 – Zen and the Art of Cab Driving to find it on Netflix or similar.)
Being a curious sort, I wondered what else I could find out about perfectionism, so I looked at the next result of the Google search. The abstract of Debra White’s article on www.eric.ed.gov provides a counterpoint to Jim’s success. It brings out the problems of perfectionism:
“Many clients experience chronic anxiety, procrastination, indecisiveness, and a lack of commitment in their lives. In a number of these cases, the dynamic underlying the distress of these individuals is that of perfectionism, an exceedingly strong internal demand to perform constantly without flaw. Many social and familial factors set the stage for perfectionism, and it manifests itself in emotional, behavioral, and cognitive dynamics. Many forms of religious training, traditional Western education, and the media all uphold perfectionistic thinking. The obsession with being perfect infiltrates families and is passed on from generation to generation. The perfectionist seems to lack a sense of self-compassion, compassion as an attitude which includes trust in oneself to learn and grow, a commitment to providing oneself a nurturing inner environment in which to grow, and loyalty to oneself while growing. Therapy with a perfectionistic client is often difficult. Guidelines which may be helpful include: (1) placing the dynamic of perfectionism within the environmental context; (2) helping clients to experience the degree to which perfectionistic standards infiltrate their lives; (3) examining the full cycle of critical self-statements, emotional reactions, and compulsive behaviors; and (4) addressing the underlying fear of self-compassion. (Author/NRB).”
So, if we focus intensely on finding what can go right on our projects, could that also activate the negative side of perfectionism? As the two views of perfectionism suggest, visualizing and acting on a perfect outcome can lead us to new solutions and better results. But, since our projects aren’t 30 minute TV shows, we also have to be careful what expectations we set for ourselves and as promises to others. We have to be persistent and self-compassionate at the same time. We need to have “trust in oneself to learn and grow, a commitment to providing oneself a nurturing inner environment in which to grow, and loyalty to oneself while growing” according to Ms. White.
When Jim reached his goal – breaking Sunshine Cab Company records and turning his nasty boss, Louie, into a vocal admirer – he called the perfect cab driver stint done. He had to work too hard. Jim seemed like a good project manager to me. He defined his goal, figured out how do make all his cab rides go right to maximize his productivity, acted on his plan, worked hard, and stopped expending resources when his goal was achieved. He thought about perfection to find what could go right on his project, but didn’t obsess about it. Then he went home and watched TV with his friends.
Thanks for reading.
Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012