How Perfectionism Can Keep You From Success

May 27, 2016, 12:30 AM UTC
Business Woman Failure
Stressed businesswoman
Photograph by Kieferpix — Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How do you embrace imperfection as part of professional development? is written by Sarah Kauss, founder and CEO of S’well.

I’m a perfectionist. I can beat the best at noodling sentences or setting up rooms until they are just perfect for the occasion. But what I’ve come to learn over the last few years is that being a perfectionist is basically a bad habit—a habit that eats up my day and pigeonholes me in ways I sometimes fail to recognize. This isn’t an easy admission—I used to pride myself on being a perfectionist. I was always taught to strive to present and be my best self. But over the years, I’ve learned how truly draining it can be to strive for perfection at every turn.

Recently, I was scheduled to attend a pretty amazing business dinner. I was excited and looking forward to going, but it was a super hectic day and I’d had zero time to think about getting changed for the occasion, which included major designers, corporate CEOs, and even a Pulitzer Prize winner. I’d imagine that anyone going to an event like this would want to find time to change clothes, possibly get a fresh manicure, or do something that would make them feel a little more pulled together (which had been my plan all along). But when the calendar reminder popped up on my computer, I was still at my desk, in my work clothes, and without a fresh coat of polish on my nails.

See also: The Surprising Thing Strong Leaders Know That Weak Leaders Don’t

In that moment, the perfectionist in me reared its ugly head, almost convincing me to skip the event. What a mistake that would’ve been. Not only did I end up feeling comfortable as I was, but the event offered a one-of-a-kind experience—one that I wouldn’t have traded in for anything.

Perfectionism is different for everyone, but for me, the struggle is real. It’s a part of who I am, and while there are positive aspects to it, I’ve recognized that it creates major limitations. It can keep me, and those like me, from moving fast enough, and without the right amount of confidence. Not to mention that it can keep us from reaching for our dreams, achieving our goals, or partaking in those truly transformative experiences.

Since starting S’well, I’ve had an imperfection awakening. While I catch myself at least a couple of times a week reaching for perfection, I find myself accomplishing more (and feeling more complete) when I remember to throw it out the window.


Imagine a business leader who lacks confidence, doesn’t move quickly, or doesn’t participate in new and interesting experiences. How could that leader truly be effective in the long run? While perfectionism will always run through my blood, I’ve become aware of how this tendency can impact the business I’ve created, the employees I’ve hired, the mentees I coach, and the personal opportunities that come my way. This awareness has allowed me to truly understand when and how to let go.

The battle may never end. But it’s a battle I’m willing to fight if it means I’m empowered (or empowering others) and achieving what I’ve set out to accomplish.

Don’t get me wrong: Embracing imperfection is a bold move, but it may just be one of the bravest things you will ever do.