Eleni Kelakos Executive leadership coaching, Peak Performance, presentation skills training, public speaking training, Women in Leadership

Embrace Your So-Called Mistakes and be Perfectly Imperfect

Women are notorious perfectionists. We need to “get it right, and we beat ourselves into a pulp when we don’t. In the corporate world, women are more likely to be perfectionistic and deeply self-critical than the men they work with. This is what Psychologist Peta Slocombe, senior VP of Corporate Health at Medbio, concluded through an Australian survey of 4980 workers from 41 workplaces.

I wasn’t exactly surprised to read these findings, because I continously encounter this tendency towards perfectionism in the women who come to me for executive leadership coaching. And, as a recovering perfectionist, I understand all too well the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism.

According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of the book The Confidence Code, even women at the highest level of authority and influence struggle with perfectionism and self-doubt. That includes powerhouses like Christine LaGarde, former Chairman of the International Monetary Fund and current president of the European Central Bank. As Ms. LaGarde admits in in The Confidence Code “…to be overly prepared and to be rehearsed, and to make sure that you are going to get it all and not make a mistake… it’s very time consuming!”

Whether they are in high levels of leadership, or on the cusp of leadership, many of the women I work with are terrified of making a mistake that will somehow make them look bad in the eyes of others. And so they either try too hard to be perfect, exhausting and stressing themselves out to the max; or they mitigate the risk of making a potential mistake by not trying at all. The latter choice is especially insidious, as it can prevent women from applying for advanced positions or important projects, speaking up at meetings, or sharing their perspective and expertise on public platforms.

When I am coaching a woman who is highly self-critical and struggles with perfectionism, I often hand her a wonderful children’s book titled The Girl Who Never Makes Mistakes, by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein. The book is about a little girl named Beatrice who is known far and wide for never, ever having once made a mistake… which is a very big responsibility for her to carry.

One day, Beatrice has her first “Almost Mistake,” which sets her to fretting about her performance in an upcoming talent show.

“I’m worried I’ll mess up tonight, and everyone will be watching,” she says to her Dad on the day of the performance.

“Worry? You don’t make mistakes,” her dad replies.

Contrary to her dad’s (and everyone’s) expectations, Beatrice manages to make her Very First Mistake at the Talent Show– and in a very public, dramatic way (I’m not revealing the nature of the mistake, because I’m hoping you might go check out the book yourself!). Instead of chastising herself over her Big Mistake, Beatrice makes a bold choice: She laughs, shrugs, picks herself up and moves on. The decision to do so changes Beatrice in a fundamental manner: She becomes more willing to take risks and be vulnerable, and less focused on having to be perfect all the time—which frees her up to live life with greater abandon and more joy.

Beatrice’s reaction to her big “mistake” is often surprising and enlightening to my clients. “I wish someone had given me this book to read when I was a little girl,” they say, reluctantly handing me back the book. “Me too,” I reply. “But better late than never!”

What about you? Are you a perfectionist?

Is needing to “be perfect, or else!” adding undue stress and strain to your life? Are you highly self-critical, even when you’ve done your best? Is perfectionism preventing you from taking healthy, necessary risks that could move you forward in your work and leadership?

What might your life or work feel like if you reached for excellence instead of perfection? If you embraced your so-called mistakes and allowed yourself to be perfectly imperfect?

As little Beatrice demonstrates, being willing to embrace your “mistakes” and to let go of the need for perfection is incredibly freeing. Like Beatrice, you can choose to free yourself from the weight of perfectionism, and leap more fully, messily and productively into your life—so you can make the difference you were born to make.