The curse of perfectionism

Drs. Joel C. Small and Edwin McDonald explain why striving for consistent improvement is more attainable and healthier than perfectionism.

Drs. Joel C. Small and Edwin McDonald discuss perfectionism versus consistent improvement

Professional athletes train to perfect their skills throughout their lifetime, and yet few of them can attain perfection. Olympic gymnasts, for example, spend hours upon hours in training to perfect their skills yet rarely achieve a perfect 10 score. Ty Cobb, a renowned baseball player, had a .366 batting average over 24 seasons as a professional player. This is the highest career batting average ever recorded in major league baseball. Even Babe Ruth, one of the most revered baseball sluggers of all time, had a career batting average of .342. To put this in a more understandable perspective, two of the very best batters in the history of professional baseball had successful at-bats a little more than one out of every three attempts, and yet they are, to this day, considered to be among the best to ever have played the game.

What is it that allows professional athletes to continue their rigorous training and all that it entails when they find themselves incapable of achieving consistent perfection? Perhaps they have a healthier understanding of their aspirations and goals. Perhaps they have accepted the reality that batting a thousand or consistently receiving a perfect 10 is unattainable and unrealistic.  Recognizing and accepting this reality allows them to adopt more reasonable and achievable goals.

Sure, they would love to be perfect in every aspect of their sport, but holding this unattainable goal of perfection as their standard has negative psychological consequences. Setting a standard of perfection and never being able to achieve it creates a state of cognitive dissonance and brings with it all the accompanying stress, frustration, and loss of self-esteem. Rather than setting perfection as their standard, most successful athletes set a more realistic goal of constant improvement. Quite simply, their goal is to be better tomorrow than they were today.

Dentists and other health care professionals would be much better off adopting a similar mindset.

We have seen too many of our colleagues suffer the ravages of perfectionism, as they seek validation and self-esteem through perfection. Ultimately, they suffer the severe and predictable psychological consequences when they fail to achieve the unachievable. This is a no-win scenario with a significant downside.

Dentistry is a highly skillful and precise profession in which perfection is often the difference of a millimeter or two. Furthermore, factors beyond our control often limit our ability to achieve clinical perfection. How we view this reality is critical. Do we accept our imperfection knowing that we gave our very best effort to achieve an optimal result, or do we demean ourselves and find ourselves unworthy or not enough?

The truth is that we were trained to be perfectionists, and yet we live in an imperfect world where perfection is seldom attained. Being a perfectionist in an imperfect world creates an incongruous reality in which a gap exists between where we are currently and where we ideally want to be. Closing the gap is only possible if the preferred reality is attainable. Otherwise, our inability to close the gap creates ongoing mental anguish.

Holding ourselves to an unachievable standard will often result in depression, severe burnout, drug and alcohol abuse, stressed relationships, and loss of self-esteem. It is not uncommon for colleagues to suffer from “imposter syndrome” when they consistently fail to meet an impossible standard, and therefore feel unworthy and diminished. Sadly, some of our colleagues have left our profession because the psychological consequences of perfectionism were more than they could bear.

Rejecting perfection as our standard does not mean that we submit to imperfection or accept mediocrity as a new standard. In fact, striving for constant improvement is a much healthier and more realistic goal that recognizes our professional development as an ongoing journey. This mindset, often referred to as a “growth mindset,” acknowledges that we are constantly in a state of imperfection as we continually seek more knowledge and skill. Scaling our capabilities and capacity to meet the changing technical demands of our profession is a life-long endeavor that requires continual learning and adjustment. In today’s world, it is an organizational imperative if we are to remain relevant. Believing that perfection is an end point or achievable destination, however, shuts down future growth because there is no motivation to grow beyond perfection.

It has been our experience as professional healthcare coaches that the happiest and most successful doctors acknowledge their shortcomings but refuse to be psychologically victimized by them. Instead, they are constantly seeking self-improvement through continuing education and other means of self-enrichment. Like professional athletes, they too would like to be perfect in every aspect of their profession, but they refuse to let imperfection serve as an excuse to quit trying to be better tomorrow than they were today.

Consistent improvement can lead you to become a strong and adaptive leader. Read more about what it takes to be a productive leader here:

Drs. Joel C. Small and Edwin (Mac) McDonald have a total of over 75 years of dental practice experience. Both doctors are trained and certified Executive Leadership Coaches. They have joined forces to create Line of Sight Coaching, a business dedicated to helping their fellow dentists discover a better and more enjoyable way to create and lead a highly productive clinical dental practice. Through their work, clients experience a better work/life balance, find more joy in their work, and develop a strong practice culture and brand that positively impact their bottom line. To receive their free ebook, 7 Surprising Steps to Grow Your Practice Through Leadership, go to

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