Bartleby: The perils of perfectionism
A backlash against the tyranny of high expectations
It is the world’s most tired interview question: what is your greatest weakness?
And Rishi Sunak, one of the two remaining candidates in the race to become Britain’s prime minister, gave the world’s most tired answer—perfectionism—when he was asked it at an online hustings earlier this month.
No interviewee would answer this question with an unambiguous negative (“stupidity”, say, or “body odour”).
Like all those who have reached for it before, Mr Sunak will have intended his reply to signal that his flaws are virtues, especially compared with the shambolic style of Boris Johnson’s outgoing government.
But this classic response is riskier than it once was.
In Mr Sunak’s case that is because the job of prime minister is largely to triage problems and make decisions at a relentless pace; even his supporters worry that his deliberative style would be a problem.
More generally, perfectionism is increasingly out of step with the ways that products are developed, employees are treated and workforces are organised.
Start with product development.
Lots of digital types embrace the concept of the minimum viable product (MVP), in which companies ship prototypes that can be refined, or indeed scrapped, on the basis of feedback from early adopters.
The essence of the MVP approach is anti-perfectionism: don’t procrastinate, don’t spend time sweating the tiniest details, get your product into users’ hands and see how it does.
Fussing about font sizes and nice-to-have features is a waste of time; the market will hone things for you, dispensing its judgments cumulatively and dispassionately.
A growing emphasis on employees’ well-being is another reason why perfectionism is out of favour.
The trait is on the rise: a study published in 2017 found that it had been steadily increasing among American, British and Canadian college students between 1989 and 2016 (before you blame Instagram, one big reason is rising parental expectations).
The tyranny of excessively high expectations is not good for you: a big literature review in 2016 concluded that perfectionism is associated with a string of mental-health disorders, from depression and burnout to stress and self-harm.