Aug. 3, 2016 – Paula Davis-Laack wrote about perfectionism in the March 2016 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer, highlighting seven negative traits. Her article’s purpose is to convince us that perfectionism is a real problem, not a humble-brag. In my view, it is especially a problem for young lawyers.
In thinking about my own perfectionism, I realized it’s driven by fear. I’m afraid each day’s work might bring mistakes, criticism, misunderstanding, and failure. That fear, however, is irrational. It can be countered with the truth.
So here are four fears that drive my own perfectionism, along with four truths that counter them. I hope my introspection will encourage others to view each day’s work as a step forward (even if imperfect), instead of as another chance for failure.
I’m Afraid of Making Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes they’re small, but once in a while even a small mistake will escalate to ruin your day. Every single misstep is a chance to be judged, a chance for malpractice, a chance for disaster. As a young lawyer I know every day that I have to prove myself, and it seems like every mistake adds to the bad-lawyer-o-meter. If I make too many, it’s game over; I will forever be that lawyer.
Benjamin Scott Wright, U.W. 2014, is an attorney editor at the State Bar of Wisconsin. Before beginning his work with the State Bar, he was in private solo practice in Janesville. He writes, “I had been practicing solo for about one year – a year filled with ups and downs, triumph and defeat, stress and uncertainty. In late June the State Bar hired me as a new attorney editor – proof positive that you don’t have to be perfect to make an impression!”
But the truth is that mistakes won’t kill my career – only failing to learn from them will. People know that anyone can make a mistake once or twice. That’s not a problem. The problem is making the same mistakes over and over, and that only happens when you aren’t aware of your errors – one problem we perfectionists don’t have.
So I needn’t be so concerned about avoiding mistakes, as long as I learn from them. Thankfully, the more painful the mistake, the easier it is to learn.
I’m Afraid Others Will Think I’m a Bad Lawyer
As a young lawyer, this is always in the back of my mind. My fledgling career depends on impressing others: the partner, the judge, opposing counsel, every lawyer in my community who might refer to me, potential clients, actual clients, etc. Reputation will make me or break me.
So I want my work to impress people. I want it badly. And to impress, it has to be perfect. Our profession has high standards to begin with, and the star attorneys in every community set the bar even higher. I’m afraid it may be too high for me, and everyone will know it.
The truth, however, is that nobody expects me to be Gerry Spence. They expect me to be young, inexperienced, and constantly learning. It’s OK to be imperfect, again, as long as I learn and improve.
I’m Afraid Others Will Misunderstand Me
Lawyers speak and write for a living, and success depends on making ourselves understood. We also deal with people who can make our lives miserable if they misunderstand us. The last thing I need in this stressful profession is a basic breakdown in communication. That’s why I’m tempted to craft every email and letter like a sculptor, to chip and tinker until my creation emerges in perfect, crystal form.
The truth is that mistakes won’t kill my career – only failing to learn from them will.
Taking care to speak clearly is important. But the truth is that I cannot control my audience; I cannot force them to understand me. They might be hungry, tired, angry at some other thing, or prejudiced. They might not know the definition of a common word. These things are beyond my control.
The point is that spending another half-hour just to brainstorm how my letter might be misperceived won’t make much of a difference. The letter can never be perfect because the person receiving it isn’t perfect. Misunderstandings happen, and when they do I can correct them. It’s futile to think I can avoid them altogether. At some point I have to let go.
I’m Afraid I’ll Never Be Successful If I’m Not Successful Now
Our world preaches success. “Success” usually means money and accolades, things that only come through good work. So naturally I want every piece of work to be perfect; if it isn’t, I won’t be successful. I want every email to get a pleasant response, every motion granted, and every conversation to impress. I’m afraid that if my work doesn’t get approval right now, it never will.
The truth is that, for most of us, success does not come quickly or easily. It comes slow and painful. It comes at the end of a slog through mistakes and lost battles and wanting to give up. It comes after 10,000 hours of novice work. But to those who persevere, success does come.
I need to remind myself of that. Every email, motion, and conversation is a step forward whether it is successful or not. Each day’s work brings more experience and a lesson learned, whatever the result. So everything doesn’t have to be perfect, if I accept that the journey to success takes more than the first few steps.
This article is adapted from one published in the June 2016 issue of Fresh Perspectives, the newsletter of the Young Lawyers Division.