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Slider: Perfection Paralysis

The term cognitive slider was coined by Derek Cabrera to communicate “a relatively small, nourishing or ‘meaty’ mental model” for use in increasing one’s prosocial or emotional intelligence. This blog is part of a set of blogs under the tag "sliders." Be sure to check out the tag to read them as a group and learn how sliders are at play and can help us in our everyday lives.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many students and folks who are new to the workforce. I must say, working with a team of young, passionate professionals who still believe they can change the world for the better (and likely will) is one of the best parts of my job. 

First, we focus on getting them engaged with the vision and mission. Then we focus on the tactical team level in order to get the daily, weekly and quarterly work done. There are all kinds of task management systems and strategies available to do this.

Regardless of which system you use for task management, it inevitably comes down to “how successfully an individual can execute a task that is linked to the bigger picture.”

Time and again I see faulty mental models that get in the way. So we created a slider to help people develop the skills needed to overcome this less functional mental model. It’s called the “Perfection Paralysis” slider and here’s how it works...

First, a realistic mental model of perfection requires something not so obvious. It requires incremental change. It requires feedback. It requires hard work, determination, and failure. In other words, a growth mindset is essential to achieving "perfection."

But what is perfection? A dictionary definition of perfection says it is "the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from flaws or defects." Most importantly, getting to this condition requires feedback. You must respond to feedback to make incremental progress and to achieve your goals. The real world weighs in on your performance and your mindset through feedback. This means that you cannot work in isolation and accomplish iterative improvements. There are very few situations where you can hunker down and work on something until it is perfect and then present it to your boss. That doesn't happen in the real world. 

Success in the real world also comes from not being embarrassed of failure. Failure is feedback. Feedback is the key to success. Failure is not only necessary but completely acceptable to growth and change. And, resistance to failure indicates a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset one will never be "perfect."

The contrast between two mental models of "perfection" leads to perfection paralysis. We will call the functional mental model of perfection - Perfection by Incremental Progress and the faulty mental model that leads to paralysis -Perfection by Masterful Production.  The map below distinguishes between the two:

Screen Shot 2020-07-18 at 4.33.57 PMPerfection by masterful production vs perfection by incremental progress

You can see "perfection by incremental progress" includes all the requisite parts discussed: feedback, incremental progress, embracing failure as learning, growth, hard work and determination.

In contrast,  "perfection through masterful production" originates from one's a priori experiences that include: 

  • A history of getting participation rewards;
  • The belief that geniuses are born geniuses; 
  • The belief that a fixed mindset works for you; 
  • Seeking rewards are predominately extrinsic, thus creating motivation that is extrinsic; 
  • Thinking that all ideas are good; 
  • Needing incredibly detailed instructions to complete a task; 
  • Believing that if failure occurs, then it's the rubric's fault;
  • Seeing negative feedback as "mean"; and
  • Expecting only positive feedback. 

All or some of the elements above combine to create an altered definition of perfection  to mean the completion of some task in a way that produces the expectation of positive feedback in order to satisfy the taskmaster's need for extrinsic reward. When compared to the actual definition of perfection (the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects) one can begin to understand why increasingly complex tasks regularly crater workers who believe in the masterful production mindset.   

Thus, one thing we can do to improve the collective outcomes of our workforce is to debunk the seemingly predominant model of "perfection by masterful production" towards a more forgiving, growth oriented model that embraces the necessity of feedback, change and growth towards a desired state or goal.


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