I still remember the first task I worked on when I joined management consulting: they asked me to build a skeleton of a PowerPoint deck for my manager. What is a skeleton? It’s a bare-bones slide deck that has headings, but very little content. It’s the starting point for all slide decks, and what I came to realize is as important as an outline is to a book.

If you don’t know what management consulting is, you will quickly learn on the job, as I did. While driving to my first ever client interview with another consultant, I asked him what it is we consultants did. He told me, in a roundabout way, that we interview the client, asking them lots of questions about what challenges and problems they face. We then ask them about what they think could be improved, or how things could be improved. Then we write everything they told us, put it in a nicely formatted report or slide deck. And then we charge clients (sometimes) a lot of money for the report.

I was astounded. We ask them for the problems and the solutions? And then we document this and then charge them for the work? I’m simplifying consulting slightly, but as I think back to my projects, that’s exactly what we did.

Starting your career? Aim for perfect

Early on in management consulting, it was clear I had a steep learning curve, having never done consulting before. I suspect there’s a similarly steep learning curve for any graduate starting their career. That’s why I believe the best thing I’ve done for my career is to aim for perfection.

Starting your job, you don’t know what perfect looks like. Perfect, in fact, can depend on many different factors:

  • Quality of the work
  • Reception from client / customer / audience
  • Perception from your boss
  • The time you spent on it
  • How many people have worked on it and the time they spent on it
  • How many people have reviewed your work and provided their input
  • Which specific people reviewed the work
  • Support from colleagues or bosses

With so many factors, there is no way you will know what perfect looks like. But that doesn’t mean you can’t aim for it. That’s what I did in management consulting: I learned from my mistakes; I built up domain knowledge so I can critically think about the work; I learned who to talk to in the firm and who I needed support from, and I spent (arguably) way too much time on small things.

In Scott Galloway’s book The Algebra of Happiness, he talks about how if you are in your 20s and 30s, you should be working as hard as you can to set yourself up for success later. To get any ‘balance’ in your 40s and 50s, you have to weigh work heavily in the early years of your career. What are you putting the extra time and effort into early in your career? You are aiming for perfection.

Can you be too perfectionist?

Consider that my career has only been a decade, but my answer is yes.

One day, I was leaving the office, and I saw another consultant (a friend outside of work) working away. I asked them what they were working on, and they told me they were writing an email. When I looked, the email was literally an essay. I asked my friend how long they had been working on it. A couple of hours writing and re-writing they told me. Although I immediately thought that was way too long to spend on an email, I first asked them why they were spending so much time. It’s an important email communicating information to some executives, and the actions they need to take. Of course, how you write an email for people to take action is likely another blog post, but I thought it was ironic that the longer the email, the less motivated people would be to take action.

I get it. That was where I was a couple of years ago. I would write and re-write emails for hours on end because I wanted to simplify the language, format the email correctly, and eliminate any redundant words. Check the recipients over and over because I was deathly afraid of emailing the wrong people. I would draft up emails, then try to forget about them, and then come back to the email so that I could look at the email with a fresh pair of eyes.

When did it stop?

It stopped when I recognized the following things:

  • Perfect stopped me from completing my work. An email isn’t an email until you hit send and it is in someone else’s inbox. A report that you wordsmith over and over, isn’t a report until it’s in the client’s hands.
  • Perfect in your eyes may not be perfect in another. Despite all the work I would do rewriting an email, or wordsmithing a report, my bosses and the clients would always find things to change. Sometimes, there were spelling and grammar mistakes, but I’m not talking about those. One of my clients followed spelling and grammar to the tee and went into a report we wrote to fix all spelling and grammatical mistakes. Another one of my clients did not like the word “challenges” so we re-wrote all challenges into “opportunities”.
  • Perfect can be a form of procrastination. Rather than send in my report to my manager, I asked for more time to fix the spelling and grammar. Or to make sure that the report ‘flowed’. But what I was really doing was procrastinating from shipping the work. Getting feedback was painful at times – especially when you pour a lot of work into something you are proud of.
  • Perfect is unattainable, but that’s okay. If you are doing valuable, hard work, I don’t think perfect is attainable. Having watched a few documentaries about food in Japan (Jiro dreams of Sushi and Ramenheads), I see that the pursuit of perfect in a restaurant is what fuels the chef’s motivation to continually tweak and experiment with their food. Even after a few more decades of work, I suspect I will never be ‘perfect’, at least if I’m trying to do something valuable and complex.

Finding the balance between perfect and good enough

Let me end with a few thoughts on how to find the balance between perfect and good enough:

  • You can strive for perfect, but let natural constraints dictate when you ship. You can spend hours, weeks, even months on a report, but the report needs to get to your boss / client / audience’s hands at some point. And you can work away trying to perfect a book, or painting, but you have limited time, energy or money to do so. These natural constraints that come with any work can help push you to ship. In other words, you can aim for perfection, up to when your constraints force you to ship your work.
  • Let your experience dictate when something is close to perfect. While no two projects are exactly the same, if you worked one hundred hours on a report for a previous project, and your next project has a similar report, you might expect to work around one hundred hours for the similar report. If that number blows up to two hundred or five hundred, you might be pushing the line past perfect (and into procrastination).
  • Determine if you are procrastinating and why. I suspect my friend/coworker working on the email was partly trying to perfect their email, but also partly procrastinating. And I suspect that’s the case because that’s what I did: after spending a significant time on writing and re-writing an email, there came a point where I was afraid of hitting the send button. Or you might be procrastinating because you don’t want more work. Or you don’t want any negative feedback. Don’t take constructive criticism in the wrong way – it’s feedback to help you become better or do better work. Procrastinating can also be your mind’s way of saying “Ship it! It’s good enough!”
  • Come to your work fresh. It’s amazing what you see when you change your work or your perspective. Coming back to a report the next day, you realize you’ve been misspelling an acronym you have been using. Or that email you want to send is missing a very obvious recipient or attachment. If you find you’re not making progress on the work you’re doing, come back to it after a break. And then if you still find you’re not making progress, it’s likely a sign that you’ve done all you can.