One Trap Leaders Can Avoid if They Choose

3 Practices for Staying Fully Engaged in the Present

If you’re a successful leader, you have high standards. That’s part of what makes you successful. You constantly strive to improve, to achieve.

You’re future oriented—most leaders I know are. You’re always working toward something better than you see right now. And that’s important, but there is also a dark side to this orientation: perfectionism.

If you’re not careful, part of what makes you great can also drive you crazy. I know because I’m describing myself.

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ve always struggled with it. I’m geared toward the future. Dissatisfaction in the present drives me to build a better future for my team, my family, and myself.

But this future orientation comes with tradeoffs.

The Trap of Perfectionism

If I—if we—don’t keep our perfectionism in check, we’re unable to be fully present for the people who matter most to us. We miss the joy of the moment because we’re constantly anticipating what’s coming. It’s a dangerous trap.

Maybe it’s the judgment of our friends and colleagues. Or anxiety about reaching a goal. Whatever it is, we’re so hung up on what’s next, we can’t experience what’s now.

present over perfect bookIn the best circumstances our future-orientation drives high performance and excellence. But in the worst it cheats us and those closest to us out of meaningful connection in the moment.

That’s why I’m grateful for my friend Shauna Niequist’s new book, Present over Perfect.

What Perfect Can Cost Us

Present over Perfect is an inspirational look at one leader’s decision to choose engagement with the present over anxiety about her performance.

“Work,” says Shauna, “has taught me so much about the benefits of structure, discipline, skill, communication, and responsibility. But,” she continues,

at some point, good clean work became something else: an impossible standard to meet, a frantic way of living, a practice of ignoring my body and my spirit in order to prove myself as the hardest of the hard workers.

Been there, too. In fact, I bet many of us have.

The relentless pace nearly drove Shauna to the brink. Her health, relationships, and spiritual life all suffered. If it continued, it probably would have sabotaged her career, too. The cost of perfect over present was sky-high.

But Shauna’s story can show us how to avoid the trap if we choose.

3 Practices for Avoiding the Trap

Present over Perfect is full of thoughtful insights and beautiful writing. I want to highlight three practices from the book that can help leaders like us avoid the trap of perfectionism and stay engaged in the present.

  1. Count the cost. I said Shauna can help us if we choose, but we won’t do anything different unless we see how much our current behavior affects our:
    • marriage and other key relationships,
    • health and physical well-being,
    • emotional and spiritual well-being.

    We need to regularly inventory these and other domains of our life. Only when we’re aware of the cost can we decide to make a better trade.

  2. Listen to your body. Shauna began experiencing uncomfortable, sometimes painful physical symptoms. She ignored them for a while, but eventually began paying attention. Our bodies know, and they’ll tell us when we’re driving too hard.

    I ended up in the hospital with what I thought was a heart attack. That’s what put me in “perfectionism recovery” several years ago.

    Stress takes its toll—and our bodies will let us know if we listen. Not only are exhaustion and physical depletion abnormal, they’re also avoidable.

  3. Find your reset buttons. Shauna’s reset button in the book is the lakeshore. It’s where she goes to get grounded, to slow down, and reconnect with what matters most.

    For me it’s getting outdoors in the woods or a trout stream. Whatever it is for you, make sure you find it and use it—especially in conjunction with other forms of rest and rejuvenation.

    When we unplug and reset, we’ll find ourselves recharged and ready not only for our future goals, but also our present relationships and commitments.

Being visionary and future-focused is an asset. But it can easily become a liability if we’re not careful. These three practices from Shauna Niequist’s Present over Perfect can keep us fully engaged with the people and moments that restore our energy and enable us to live and lead with excellence.

Question: Have you ever struggled with perfectionism? What did you do to overcome it?