Screw Perfectionism! Improvise for Better Results

Perfectionism is on the rise, and that’s not a good thing. 

A recent study of 40,000 college students showed record high scores for 3 types of perfectionism: 

  • an irrational desire to be perfect

  • perceived pressure from others to be perfect

  • having unrealistic expectations of others.

Who knew there were so many ways to torture yourself and others? 

Mental health risks

Psychologists believe this irrational desire to succeed may cause mental health issues like depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts. 

I’ve also observed that perfectionism can manifest as “imposter syndrome.” That’s a sinking feeling that you’re a professional fraud and that other people are going to find out someday and expose you. You couldn’t possibly be that creative, intelligent or resourceful, could you?

Of course you can and you are. And you’re not alone either. A lot of accomplished professionals feel exactly the same way you do. 

If you feel stuck between delusions of perfect grandeur and the fear of being found out, let me offer a solution from my not-so-secret, secret skill: improvisation. 

Become an imperfect improviser

I first discovered improvisational theater as a high school theater geek. At its core, improvisation is working as an ensemble to create something meaningful out of thin air. It was great fun, but I left it behind to pursue a “serious” career after college. 

When I rediscovered improv several years later, it appealed to me in a wholly different way.

You see, by day I’m an organizational development and corporate training expert. My career requires a great deal of preparation, linear thought and project management skills. It’s a life where others depend on me to be, well, perfect. 

Improv was a great counterpoint to that. Here’s why.

I think at work we can become so wrapped up in conventional (I need to be perfect) thinking, that we lose track of what we’re actually there to do. We may even lose track of who we really are. We repeat to ourselves:

  • Think before you speak.” But then you never hear what anyone says.

  • “Practice makes perfect.” But how do you respond to unexpected moments?

  • “Think outside the box.” But constraints can often fuel creativity.

  • “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.” But real discovery requires room for serendipity.

Work environments where conventional thinking is rewarded frankly stink. They’re stifling and employees largely are afraid to take risks. Teams don’t get along and you never achieve the creative momentum it takes to really succeed. 

That brings me to the other reason I love improv: it’s subversive. Humans and workplaces aren’t perfect. Once you embrace that, you can start creating a healthier, more inclusive environment where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes on the way to achieving their goals. 

So, how do you get started with improvisation? For your next meeting, try the following:

  • Plan to be imperfect: It’s fine to prepare an outline of what you want to say or even practice a brief script beforehand. But also acknowledge that there is a 99.9% likelihood you will have to adjust or completely abandon your plan, so go in with the mindset that imperfection is the goal.

  • Be present: Focus on what is happening in the moment and respond accordingly. When someone else is talking, listen. Don’t plan what you’ll say next. Don’t check your email. Be there.

  • Listen actively: Pay attention to the words someone says and the other ways they are communicating. Look for cues in their body language, tone and speech rate that add texture to the meaning of their words.

What I think you’ll find is that you’ll have a richer experience. You’ll make a real connection with the other participants that’s both empathetic and productive.  

And the best part? 

You’ll feel a whole lot lighter. You won’t be bogged down by the enormous weight of perfectionism that kills your confidence, stresses your body and mind, and drains your creativity. You’ll just be you and you are imperfectly awesome.