My torts professor was terribly fond of saying that you only remember something after you’ve heard it at least 5 times. He would then intone, 5 times, “Negligence is not a defense to an intentional tort.” And whaddya know, after 20-plus years, I DO remember that! And, unfortunately, quite a bit about Mrs. Palsgraf and her trouble with crashing objects that got repeated endlessly. (If only there had been YouTube when I was in law school, we could have just watched this and moved right on.)

perfection entry in dictionary
Perfect and its cousins may fill a dictionary page, but it won't fulfill you in work or life.

The same principal works on what we say to ourselves, too. That’s why I’ve been working to eliminate one word from my vocabulary: perfect. I use it way too much, and I don’t like the way it makes my brain tilt.

It’s a little odd, this obsession I have about ridding myself of that word. Mostly, I use it to describe something that works really well, or that fits the circumstances quite nicely. What’s so damaging about that?

For starters, it awakens my dozing inner lizard, Guido, who first gets excited about something finally being perfect; it’s about damn time! Then, Guido starts picking out all the flaws with whatever I’ve just described as perfect. Since that only takes a second or two, and since he’s up and about anyway, Guido then looks for other things whose flaws need pointing out. At this point we often veer into topics like money, my dowdy shoes, my singing, the amount of carbs I’m consuming, the exercise I’m not doing, or other fulfilling subjects.

Also, the stickler in me tends to pipe up annoyingly about how nothing on this amazing, gorgeous, wonderful earth is perfect, and so essentially I’m lying to myself and maybe others when I say something is perfect. Yes, my head is often a place I should only venture into under strict supervision.

The Ugly Side of Perfect

Using “perfect” all the time telegraphs a message to your subconscious, that perfection is the goal. Perfection can be massively demotivating, particularly for lawyers who see with excruciating clarity the gap between where they are and where perfect is. The perfect job that turns out to be fine, but with some flaws, can become an indictment of the decision to leave law.

Perfect also narrows your focus too much. It focuses on what already is, not what could be. Great advances in thinking, science, product development, heck just being, often start out as “imperfect.” Post-it notes, anyone?

Perfect focuses you on being someone else’s ideal, rather than your own wild and wonderful creation. That’s the highest cost of all to pursuing perfection. And when you’re looking for the “perfect” job to leave law for, your options will be limited to the known, the trodden (and societally approved) path, which may not actually suit you at all. The one which earns you money and respect, and comes with a Celexa prescription and Xanax chaser. But damn, it will be perfect, right?

So change your perfectionist ways. Instead of describing a job or anything else as “perfect” this week, substitute something more accurate and more genuine. I use words like:

  • super
  • wondrous
  • amazing
  • brilliant
  • superb
  • fabulous
  • stunning
  • excellent
  • gorgeous
  • beautiful
  • lovely
  • fantastic
  • splendid
  • enchanting

Sure, it doesn’t sound like much. Until you try it and get your mind blown by how often you actually do use “perfect” as a default description.

And if by chance you really use “perfect” less than once daily, you could always adapt the idea: Track how much those around you use it. Especially the people who drive you battiest. Kind of like gunner bingo in law school.

I’d love to hear how your experiment goes, and the changes you see in your life and job search when you give up your perfect addiction.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys break out of perfect and into wonderful—in career and in life. Find out what that’s like by scheduling a discounted sample coaching session with Jennifer. Email today to get started on your amazing new life and work.