We’re all familiar with perfectionism. It’s the desire to be or appear perfect, and it’s on the rise. Recent research shows that perfectionism among young people has grown year over year since 1989.
We believe that one of the reasons perfectionism is increasing is because organizations are promoting a culture of perfectionism in the workplace. And it’s killing creativity and innovation.
At its core, perfectionism is fueled by a fear of failure. For individuals, it’s the fear of making a mistake, losing face or being ostracized by a group. For organizations, it’s the fear of losing resources (money, time, etc.). To avoid failure, organizations focus on initiatives that guarantee consistent growth, year over year. This is toxic to company culture as the focus on certainty discourages risk-taking and experimentation. As a result, employees are rewarded for detail-oriented output and doing ‘tried and true’ repetitive work lower on the hierarchy of complexity instead of pushing the boundaries and iterating on new and exciting ideas.
We call this a crisis because the pursuit of perfectionism is a deathblow to creativity. Creativity is the lifeblood of any industry. You don’t succeed by promoting sameness. You succeed by being unique and extraordinary - by being Exceptional. This is what we set out to do at ZURB. We set out to be an exceptional company by cultivating a culture of exceptionalism.
Exceptional people are extraordinary, unmatched and unique. They are driven to push the limits of their knowledge and talent and collaborate with others in order to create something extraordinary.
Our values are to keep supporting and encouraging our team to be exceptional.
This is how we do it.
The Problem with Perfectionism
Another recent study found that levels of perfectionism have risen significantly among young people since 1989. Compared to previous generations, today’s college students are harder on themselves, more demanding of others, and perceive that others are more demanding of them.
Perfectionism is driven, in large part, by a desire to avoid failure. Fear of failure is a function of excessive standards and desire to do things well. Perfectionists fear that if they don’t do something perfectly (i.e. they fail), they’ll expose an inner weakness or frailty, and risk not being impressive or fitting in. In this case, they strive for perfection to avoid judgement. That’s why those with higher perfectionism generally experience more stress in their daily lives, which has been linked to a host of mental and physical health problems.
Aside from the impact on individuals, perfectionism is toxic to company culture. Companies that focus solely on consistent, year-over-year growth are deliberately (or unknowingly) cultivating a culture of perfectionism. In such companies, the pursuit of an ever increasing bottom line creates an environment that is intolerant of errors, imperfections and different approaches. This type of ethos doesn’t offer much room for experimentation, learning, and embracing the unknown — endeavors essential to innovation, which is a key ingredient for a company’s long-term success.
In a culture of perfectionism, employees tend to assume that everyone else is doing better than they are, so they become preoccupied with being perfect in order to ‘catch up’. However, striving to impress others causes people to do what they know rather than explore what they don’t know. As a result they become fixated on details, results and managing risks through more and more analysis, rather than taking risks and iterating on ideas. This stifles their desire and ability to be creative.
The relentless focus on details and ‘getting things right’ also makes it difficult for perfectionists to see the big picture, which is necessary in order to generate new insights and solutions to complex problems.
The pursuit of perfection isn’t a bad thing; it can manifest in the intense, internal drive that can lead to high achievement. However, an obsession with perfectionism severely limits an organization (and its employees’) capacity for wonder and awe, both critical for innovation.
The Difference Between Exceptionalism and Perfectionism
I’m always debugging the determinants of great work. Luckily, through my 20+ years of experience leading ZURB, I’ve also had access to a large sample size and sandbox for testing theories and uncovering insights. Over time, I realized that my top team members weren’t perfectionists -they weren’t driven by a desire to do perfect work, achieve individual success and fit in. It was just the opposite. They were driven by a desire to understand themselves, challenge their preconceived notions, and think big by collaborating with others.
They were driven by exceptionalism, not perfectionism.
In short, the difference between perfectionists and exceptionalists is:
Perfectionists are driven by a fear of failure, of making a mistake or being criticised, which limits their ability to effectively collaborate.
Exceptionalists are driven by a desire to better understand themselves so they can follow their unique path and collaborate with others to achieve extraordinary results.
|How to get there?||Avoid failure||Be self-reliant, Take risks, Collaborate with others|
|Openness to new ideas/viewpoints||Rigid||Flexible|
|Focused on||Details||The bigger picture|
|Willingness to fail||No||Yes|
|Principle type of reasoning||Causal||Effectual|
Exceptionalism and Self-Reliance
The guiding principle of Exceptionalism comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Self-Reliance”. In it, Emerson advocates for individualism and encourages readers to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow their own instincts and ideas. For Emerson, the pursuit of perfectionism is not the pursuit of a fixed point of perfection (read: perfectionism), but rather the pursuit of excellence [read: exceptionalism]. And the only way to be excellent is to be self-reliant. To know yourself. To trust your instincts and have the courage to put your ideas out into the world, rather than following the ideas and beliefs of everyone else.
According to Emerson, this is our life’s work. There is no fixed goal, no rest, we (organizations and individuals) must be humble, constantly challenging preconceived notions and beliefs and being open to new ideas.
Exceptionalism and Failure
Perfectionists tend to have a ‘fixed mindset’. This is the belief that traits are innate, and that failure is evidence of lacking innate abilities. This fear of failure drives perfectionists to become fixated on specific ideas, be less inclined to take risks, and be more concerned with their individual success (since their self-worth is intimately tied to their perfect performance).
This is the exact opposite for exceptionalists. Exceptionalists tend to have a ‘growth mindset’ - they believe they can acquire any given ability provided they invest effort or study. Moreover, they believe that failure (and thus risk-taking) is essential to growth, learning and self-discovery.
Exceptionalism and Collaboration
While some people may perceive exceptionalism and self-reliance as being the selfish pursuit of one’s own goals, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Perfectionists are concerned with achieving individual success. Exceptionalism is the exact opposite. Exceptionalism requires self-reliance - for individuals to trust and follow their instincts - but only in order to better understand and empathize with others.
Exceptionalists understand that breakthrough ideas don't happen in a vacuum. They understand that in order to design sustainable, useful, extraordinary, and meaningful solutions, it’s imperative to understand and integrate different perspectives. This requires working with diverse people and being open to new insights, ideas, and solutions, even if they challenge their own.
While we focused on exceptional individuals. The same is true for companies.
Exceptional companies are always striving to uncover and cultivate creativity and originality. That’s why exceptional companies don’t settle for the ‘regular way things are done’. They don’t adhere to the idea that there is a set ‘finish line’ that determines success. Rather, exceptional companies pursue a path of exceptionalism by continuously iterating on new ideas in order to redefine the rules of the game and adjust the ‘big picture’. This means that they’re not afraid to take risks, fail, and iterate, in order to keep moving forward.
Take Apple, for example. If they stopped innovating after the iPod, they probably wouldn't exist today (think Blackberry). But they didn’t. They kept (and keep on) iterating and innovating, and that’s what makes them exceptional.
Tesla is another example. Tesla isn’t striving to be perfect - to do things ‘right’. Tesla is striving to transform the bar and redefine the boundaries of what’s possible. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t experience failure. On the contrary, Tesla is exceptional because it’s willing to take risks, and sometimes fail. For example, Tesla recently came under fire for over-automating it’s factories, which led to delays in production. However, the reason this was a failure is because Tesla dared to take a risk: to attempt to automate “final assembly”, something that other car makers said was impossible. What makes Tesla (and SpaceX, for that matter) exceptional is that Elon Musk (Tesla’s CEO) prioritizes taking risks, over the fear of failure. The fact that he also admitted his failure publicly, sends a message to his team: failure is part of the game.
The above example illustrates another point: The difficult relationship between vision and details. Companies can’t be exceptional without paying attention to the details. However, the bigger the vision or challenge, the more likely it is for organizations to fail at the details. Negotiating this relationship (between details and vision) is a critical part of exceptionalism. Yet, even with these failures, Tesla is still leading the way in innovation.
Exceptionalism and Design
In order to promote a culture of exceptionalism, companies must encourage and support employees to be exceptional. One way to do this is by promoting and rewarding different ways of thinking and decision making - especially ones that encourage self-discovery, collaboration, creativity, imagination and uncertainty.
However, most organizations promote a specific type of goal-oriented causal reasoning to make decisions. This approach defines a specific, predetermined goal and a given set of means. It then seeks to identify the optimal – fastest, cheapest, most efficient, etc. – way to achieve the given goal.The problem with causal reasoning is that it tends to become a trap for perfectionism as individuals spend a heck of a lot of time and resources optimizing the path from means to goal.
Design, on the other hand, uses a variety of reasoning styles (i.e. effectual, abductive, etc.) that include, but are not limited to, causal reasoning. Effectual reasoning assumes that the future is unpredictable. Rather than defining a specific plan to reach a specific goal, you focus on the means that are available to you right now, and allow goals to emerge contingently over time, without a necessary relationship between cause and effect. It also means that there will be lots of trial and error, and iteration, in the process. Something that most companies are uncomfortable with.
Similarly, abductive reasoning is the act of creatively thinking about what can be done with new data in order to orient it to the current environment. When such situations exist (which happen often in design), a designer's first activity is to wonder. Wondering, as opposed to observing, is the key to abductive reasoning, as opposed to deductive or inductive reasoning. Abduction is not declarative reasoning; its goal is not to declare a conclusion to be true or false. It is modal reasoning; its goal is to posit what could possibly be true.
Design, by promoting effectual and abductive reasoning, encourages people to think differently, work together, and not be afraid of failure - which is critical to cultivating exceptionalism. In addition to different types of reasoning, design also promotes collaboration and the free-flow of ideas. In everything from design research to idea generation to user testing, it’s vital to work together.
How We Cultivate Exceptionalism at ZURB
We didn’t set out to deliberately create a culture of exceptionalism; it happened by accident. We merely realized that, over 20 years and thousands of projects, we were doing something right. We were creating extraordinary value for our organization and our clients - and we set out to understand how and why.
So we brought our team together and distilled the six company values that, we believe, help cultivate a culture of exceptionalism at ZURB.
Build on opportunity
ZURB is built on opportunity. Opportunity to learn. Opportunity to grow. Opportunity to take risks. Opportunity to be your best. It's the focus in everything we do.Offering team members many different opportunities to learn and grow, promotes self-awareness and self-discovery - which are key to exceptionalism.
Be a coach
Our leadership is built on the assumption that everyone is capable of accomplishing awesome things. We encourage our team members to coach, teach and be mentored by one another. In order to be exceptional, team members must be coaches (and coach-able). This requires understanding themselves, being vulnerable and humble, and empathizing and connecting with others. Mentorship - having someone provide guidance and a bigger pictures - is also key to exceptionalism. Learning requires someone who can support your efforts to get over hard ideas. Moreover, mentors offer ‘windows opportunities’ that enable team members to grow. A wider window can enable growth in a broader perspective, while a narrower window provides opportunities to gain vertical expertise. Through the process of coaching and mentorship, team members discover more about themselves.
Be open to change by being curious, learning, and considering ideas that are not your own. Exceptionalism is all about re-imagining how things are done, and this requires being open to different ways of thinking.
Failure provides everyone an opportunity to learn. Give people a shot to iterate. We must help each other recover and move on. In order to reach higher levels of understanding, team members must be willing to fail, and fail fast.
Make it happen
Not all projects will be easy. As an individual and a team we will figure out how to overcome obstacles that prevent us from getting work done. Learn every day. Exceptionalism requires constant iteration because there’s always new information, insights and ideas. This means having the courage to create, take risks, and make mistakes, over and over again.
Find wins together
It's not enough to do a job. We want to make great things happen with our teammates in every project we work on. Exceptionalism requires collaborating with different people and integrating different viewpoints, ideas, and solutions. Think big!
To Become Exceptional
Cultivating a culture of exceptionalism isn’t easy. It demands a shift in mindset - from fixed to growth - and a fix in drive - from perfection to truth. Exceptional individuals and companies must value self-discovery, more than they fear failure. Moreover, the pursuit of exceptionalism never ends. As Emerson writes, there is no fixed goal, no rest. Thus, we (organizations and individuals) must be constantly challenging our preconceived beliefs and open to new ideas.
So why bother? Because the payout is worth it. Cultivating a culture of exceptionalism fosters the creativity, innovation and courage needed to solve hard, meaningful problems. There’s no other way.
We're curious about your thoughts on exceptionalism- is perfectionism causing you problems?
Leading the charge at ZURB since 1998