As I’ve written about several times (here, here, and here, for starters), perfectionism is an especially strong demon for most lawyers in their alternative legal career search. It’s one of the six attitudes that hold lawyers back in their search for a better career and life, and it’s got such a powerful hold over most lawyers that it gets its very own post.
The nub of perfectionism is worrying others will discover you are not enough, and gearing your actions and focus to eradicate that feeling of being less than perfect. The focus on the extrinsic—the partners will look down on me if I keep driving my dinged-up, paid-for Toyota, better get a BMW—keeps you from connecting with your authentic self. It’s all about external validation. Perfectionism walls you off from your own, fantastic inner wisdom, because it substitutes others’ judgments for yours. It keeps you conforming to others’ limitations, rather than exploring your own unique gifts.
Here’s a tip: No one is perfect. We all have flaws, some of them deep and juicy. Our flaws are what make us interesting and human. Lots of people think that if they were perfect, every single one of their problems would disappear. It’s more likely they would become insanely boring and horribly insufferable. And, they still wouldn’t be happy, because they’ve stopped listening to their soul.
Excellent, not Perfect
I’m not saying to avoid striving for excellence. That’s no fun at all, to settle for the mediocre if you can do better. But excellence and perfection are quite different.
Excellence is about doing the best you can, but accepting that there is no such thing as flawless. It’s about being curious, about seeing how close you can actually get to flawless, and not beating yourself or your team to an emotional pulp if you fall short.
Perfection comes from a completely different motivation—trying to hide, to cover up feelings of inadequacy. It is the siren song of “not enough.” If you don’t achieve perfection, you feel like a failure. It’s the person who wallpapers a kitchen, with all its angles and weird dimensions, and bemoans how dreadfully it turned out because 2 of the 23 pieces were 1/16” off.
The Perfect Job Chase
In a job search context, you miss a lot of great opportunities when you insist on the perfect job to get you out of law. It has to
- pay enough to keep your kids in private school and you in your 4,500 sq. ft. house in that really nice neighborhood,
- have no less-than-scintillating aspects to it,
- have completely, wonderfully nice people, no exceptions,
- with an office that has a door and a window,
- in the fashionable section of town you like, and
- have a very clear, predictable path to promotion and success that you don’t have to create.
Otherwise, you’re just going to stay in your high-paying, depression-inducing, soul-killing law job.
Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but I assure you I talk to people every week that harbor that attitude, even if they won’t articulate it so bluntly to themselves, let alone to me.
Instead of a perfect job, aim for an interesting one. Look for the intriguing or challenging. The uncertain but exciting. Don’t look for a total match with what you’ve already done–you’re trying to escape that. Innovate your new career, instead of merely changing the office where you’re miserable and deeply unsatisfied with your work. Take a less than perfect step, and see where it leads.
Next time, I’ll cover a couple more crippling attitudes lawyers carry around: avoiding discomfort and risk, and using productivity as validation.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys on disarming their inner perfectionist so they can get on with their career search and a more fulfilled life. She offers discounted sample coaching sessions. Schedule yours today by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.