With so many of us working remotely, the June issue of BarTalk is a digital-only issue. Watch for our next print issue in October. 

Nobody’s Perfect

On the relentless pursuit of perfection

Nobody’s Perfect

In my column about mental wellness last issue, I wrote, “I believe the pursuit of perfection can and often does act as a barrier to obtaining excellence. Perfection is impossible to attain. We need to be willing to say, ‘this is very good,’ while acknowledging that further changes may make the work-product different without making it better.”

With COVID-19 spreading around the globe, many of us are compelled to re-evaluate what “perfect” looks like.

There are plenty of ancient polemics along the theme. One, attributed to Voltaire, is “Perfect is the enemy of good.” I have seen firsthand lawyers getting bogged down in the term of a particular phrase, sending two-page letters back for revision after revision after revision. I wonder if the work-product ended up better for all those changes; it may be different but was it better?

Brook Greenberg wrote an article called The Enemy of the Good: Perfectionism, Self-Doubt and Mental Health in the Legal Profession,1 wherein he noted, “perfectionism seems to run rampant within our profession.” He also identified self-criticism and imposter syndrome as some manifestations of self-doubt, which affect our mental health. He wrote, “it is not an overstatement to say that self-doubt is killing lawyers. Better understanding the consequences of internal sources of distress may be key to achieving improved mental health in the legal profession.” [emphasis mine]

According to Anxiety Canada,2  “Perfectionism... involves a tendency to set standards that are so high that they either cannot be met or are only met with great difficulty. Perfectionists tend to believe that anything short of perfection is horrible and that even minor imperfections will lead to catastrophe.” They say perfectionists are prone to depression and anxiety; perfectionists are prone to black-and-white thinking and/or catastrophic thinking. Symptoms of perfectionism include procrastination, being overly cautious, excessively re-editing, and agonizing over small details. Perfectionists avoid new things and do not take risks. These are not healthy, productive behaviours. In these times, when we’re all working in new ways with clients and employees, perfectionism can amplify our anxiety.

Anxiety Canada has a three-tool approach to overcoming perfectionism: changing perfectionist thinking, changing perfectionist behaviours, and avoiding procrastination.

Changing perfectionist thinking is the most complicated step. It involves committing to realistic thinking, perspective-taking, and compromising. Compromising means being willing to accept a certain level of imperfection; asking questions such as “will this work” or “can I live with this?” It also involves setting realistic standards. We all dread making mistakes for fear the other side will jump on that mistake and take advantage. However, we also need to understand external factors may affect outcomes regardless of the quality of work we do. Even when we are at our best, we may not obtain the desired result. As Greenberg wrote, litigators “can do an amazing job conducting a case and still lose.”

Changing perfectionist behaviours is easy to describe, but harder than it sounds. If you are someone who is repeatedly revising correspondence, give yourself a limit of one revision. If you tend to spend inordinate amounts of time preparing for presentations, discoveries or court hearings compared to your peers, give yourself a reasonable but finite amount of preparation time. Anxiety Canada also recommends behaviours such as: deliberately leaving a small messy area at home, going to a restaurant without researching it, or even showing up for an appointment slightly late (although maybe not for court). Imagine your relief when it works out! Imagine how empowering that must be!

Overcoming procrastination involves creating realistic schedules, including breaking down larger tasks into manageable steps and prioritizing tasks. While this sounds simple, it’s not as easy to implement as it sounds.

For further reading on self-doubt and the imposter syndrome, see Greenberg’s article referenced below.

My best wishes to you, your families and colleagues during these challenging times. Please keep well.


1  bit.ly/bt0420p3-1 |
2 Their paper, How to Overcome Perfectionism, is available at cbabc.org/LawyerWellness or bit.ly/bt0420p3-2 |