Oct 26, 2010


In an article by Penelope Trunk (got to me via Central America Data), she claims that Perfectionism is a Disease and that it should be fought. It surprised me. It actually horrified me even more when the line "Accept that it’s okay to do a mediocre job on a certain percentage of your work" was so casually dropped in the middle of it. Is it me or that sounds like a perfectly good excuse to be mediocre? Yes, because "a certain percent of your work" could go from 0% to 100%, as both of them are, indeed, a certain percent. The allegations, well, lets not go there, but it crassly overlooked the fact that "perfectionism" doesn't necessarily means work short sightedness. From the way in which Ms. Trunk describes perfectionism I believe she really means "detail obsession", as a true perfectionist looks not only at the detail but also at the big picture. A detail obsessed person, on the other hand, looks only at the small things and forgets about the big picture.

Through my working life, I have met people - a real nightmare to work with - who can't get anything done because they can't see the whole matter, and overwhelmed by the size of the task - no matter the size at all - they choose to focus on one small part, regardless of how it interacts with the rest and tries to fix only that, and then goes to another and thus things get out of their hands.

Let me explain you this another way: imagine the work at hand to be a Rubik Cube. A mediocre would say the work of unscrambling the cube is finished when there are some blocks of the same color together on the same side, but none of the sides would be finished. A detail obsessed will tackle each side one by one, and if you have played with the Rubik cube you know that tactic will get you nowhere. The detail obsessed will realize that the work isn't done, but wouldn't know how to get it done, but at least would finish one side. The Perfectionist would take the cube, study it, take its time, and start woking on it, with a method, managing to unscramble it, not stoping until it is unscrambled and then will turn it around to make sure all sides are perfectly finished.

The article above mentioned, however, seems to say that the Rubik Cube can't be unscrambled and simply any level of playing around with it shall sufice.

If you've been working in a company for a while now, and you have a solid work ethic base, you surely have realized that there are more and more people, and an alarmingly growing tendency towards mediocrity. It appears with things like someone telling you that "only because you are hardworking and dedicated, you can't expct others to do the same" ( I was actually told by a boss that just because I'm intelligent and do an excelent work, I can't expect others to do the same. I was floored since I am really, really an average person with a very average 126 IQ). Continues with "it's okay to do this or that half assed because it's not like anyone will notice", and then some "it's okay to prepare a document all by copy-pasting old documents and Internet documents because nobody will read it anyway" to "I don't have time to check it, sure everybody did its job so it must be fine". In my line of work I have had the dubious pleasure of facing some abhorrent papers and mistakes that had climbed this far only by being patronized by Saint Medi Ocre. Crass mistakes that a bit of care, a bit of thinking, a tad of simple common sense would have fixed.

This satanized "perfectionism" - but the real one, the one that solves the cube - wasn't questioned back in the day. It used to be perfectly clear that when you did something you would do it well. Remember that saying? "Do it well or don't do ir at all". Then again, back in the old days all jobs had a clear vision of the long term, of the future. A project was supposed to be out there and function for an extended period of time, and you were expected to respond for it. Perfectionism, then simply known as being thorough or careful, was a natural, expected step into ensuring your responsability over something. Today, however, people seem to hop around in their jobs like detached and irresponsable. They don't care all day about anything but looking for escape goats. Why to move a finger doing something of good quality, when you can do nothing and pin it on someone else? Or why to do something well, when you can do less than the bare minimum and reply that being a "perfectionist" is a sick thing and thus you rather work with a "certain percentage of mediocrity"?

I imagine that these people would also consider a lie or a simple fairy tale the proverb "For want a Nail, the Kingdom was Lost". However, truth is that if we allow mediocre work, it will build up, accumulate, until you have a lot of people paid doing a lot of useless, misguiding, misleading, mistaken stuff. A doctor or a nurse, allowing some mediocrity into its work, could kill the patient (just look at Jamie Merrett in England), an engineer who allows mediocrity could kill lots and lots of people who use their designed and built buildings, infratructure, machinery, etc. Mediocre planning in factories could produce dangerous toys that could kill children, or poisoned food.

Okay, you may say here that these are "special circumstances". Well, lets go to the administrative sphere, where mediocre work seem to cause less damage. Truth is that it does not, but it can spread worse. As a matter of fact, mediocre planning in the Government could bring serious shortage problems, resources sent to areas that don't need it, while others that do need it remain unatended. Imagine scholarships for priviledged kids, instead of those same scholarships for underpriviledged children. Imagine health care aids for patients of common flu, or vanity-driven, unnecesary plastic surgery, instead of that same aid aimed at cancer patients, AIDS patients and other high risk populations. Perhaps your Internet or your phone services could be better, cheaper if the people in charge of that would do the work they are supposed to instead of sitting in a meeting room making up figures. Maybe there wouldn't be so many foreclosures if the people at the banks would really look at the figures, would pay attention before granting a loan, instead of hanging on the phone talking to the other end of the planet and racing each other of a number.

And what can you tell me about your gas? Maybe it could be cheaper, and less destructive if they would care for the proper training fo the workers, if they would lay down the right infrastructure, as it should be done, thus avoid spillings and accidents, and then, perhaps, taking a moment to look at real figures, real data and not speculate about the figures they want to see in the future and then fix all numbers to fit that forecast.

One thing is to make mistakes, we are all human, and that's why we double check, but another thing is to swap everything under the rug shielded by the right to be mediocre.

Maybe it works for people like Ms. Trunk, and others, maybe they rather do a half assed work (and the picturing of the perfectionist does show she pledges to what she preaches) than take their time and make sure everything is fine. Okay, but then they should also take the responsability for the part they wouldn't do. No excuses. If you choose mediocrity, take it then like a man/woman, and shoulder the consequences. And as part of that believe, well, the next time you have a bad customer experience because someone wouldn't do their job, or wouldn't do it as it should be done, all complaining rights are revoked. After all, really, you can't request from others what you are not willing to give. Am I right?

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