Coffee splashed off the counter and seeped across the floor. The breakroom was flooded with organic dark roast, caffeinating what seemed like an impossibly large surface area. My manager gasped, and I frantically grabbed for paper towels in a cleaning attempt so futile I might as well have been using my bare hands.
No one had taught me how to operate the industrial, restaurant-style coffee machine that my manager had asked me to use. No one had told me how many people to order catering for, hence the last-ditch attempt to make coffee in the hopes of having enough refreshments for the masses of people who I had not been told to anticipate. Heck, no one had told me the entire event’s management would be mine.
All of these pieces of information would have been critical, or at the very least helpful. This realization did not occur to me until I was crying in a bathroom stall, wondering if my relationship with my one true love, dark roast, was forever altered after the afternoon’s catastrophic turn.
While less visually mortifying, a situation recently arose that left me with a feeling quite similar to that of the Great Coffee Incident. What was supposed to be my day off was inundated with multiple emails from my internship’s manager. My phone buzzed from the early hours of the morning and well into the evening, leaving me feeling slightly panicked and guilty for not being at my (extremely unpaid) job.
When I arrived at the event I was supposed to be working the next day, the manager reprimanded me for things that had not been communicated to me. I was told that I had been informed and that I must have forgotten. The only responsibility I really had was taken away and I was left trying to fill the time with the menial tasks that remained.
And then I ended up in a bathroom stall, crying familiar tears of failure and frustration.
I’m a perfectionist. I consider every detail, every aspect, every possibility for every project I begin. Perfectionism can oftentimes lead to excellent end results; it can also lead to disappointment and confusion when you inevitably mess up.
Perfection does not come naturally to humans because it is inherently opposed to what being human entails. Ironically, it seems that often, perfectionism leads directly to failure. Because regardless of how wonderful the results of your perfected work are, there’s a steep price to get there. Outwardly you might have succeeded, but mentally and emotionally you probably took a beating.
And I can certainly attest to those beatings. The look of freshly added stress my manager gave me when the coffee was pouring across the room, the tone the internship manager used when she informed me that I had forgotten our previous (imaginary) conversation, even the feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I ask someone for feedback and they kindly give me constructive criticism on a project I thought I had already perfected: all of these moments stem from my need to do everything I attempt right. Everything has to be right, and if I receive even an indication that I have somehow not lived up to this standard, I immediately label the entire cause as a failure.
But as I work in more settings and for bosses with distinct styles of management, I’m learning that these “failures” I experience are really just lessons. The criticism, the miscommunications, the sharp answers are all part of being a human that works with other humans, and in that equation, there is simply no room for perfectionism.
So if you’re a perfectionist like me, maybe try reminding yourself that no one else sees the impossibly unattainable goals you are struggling to reach. Maybe remind yourself that what you consider your worst may still be really, really good. Maybe give yourself a break to just be a human for a minute.
And if you’re a reformed perfectionist, or even, dare I say, a non-perfectionist (or a unicorn as I like to think of them), please share your ways with me. I’d love to know how you do it.