What I Learned About Perfectionism From Steve Jobs

PHOTO BY MATTHEW YOHE

PHOTO BY MATTHEW YOHE

You do not need to be perfect to be successful.

This is my biggest takeaway as I’ve been reading the biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

Jobs, the late co-founder and charismatic CEO of Apple, was a perfectionist when it came to his products. Yet he seemed to worry much less about "self-perfection."

He’s widely known as a brilliant creative and fierce innovator, whose work had a global influence. He's also nearly as well known for his rudeness.

As I’ve read Jobs' biography, I’ve been stunned to recognize the amount of influence this single man – and his vision – has had on my everyday life.

My iPhone and MacBook are the organizational and creative hub of my life and work.

When I pulled my MacBook out of the box for the first time, I loved the sensation of the cool brushed metal under my fingertips. It booted up in seconds, ready to go.

I don’t think of myself as a materialistic person, yet I LOVED this object.

The beauty of these two Apple products is that they work so well, so effortlessly and faithfully, that I completely take them for granted. I use these tools in nearly every area of my life and business – and I enjoy using them.

I can’t believe the vision for these tools and this experience came largely from one man.

That’s influence.

The second surprising recognition from this book is how careless Jobs was about "perfection" in other areas of his life.

In the early days of Apple, Jobs was a hippie, Reed College dropout who attended business meetings barefoot and reeking of body odor (even with potential investors). He eschewed showering, insisting that his vegetarian diet ensured that he didn’t smell even without bathing.

He was impatient and ruthless about only working with “A" players”.

He regularly told people that their work or ideas were “shit”. (This is mentioned so often in the book, it seems his favorite refrain.)

He screamed and cried at the office.

In the early days at Apple, the key responsibility of the company president seemed to babysit him. (President salary: $1 million.)

Did this man seem to care if people thought he was perfect?

No, he did not.

This struck a chord with me.

We often think that to be successful in life and business that we need to be perfect in other people's eyes.

More and more books and articles are revealing how people, especially women, are held back in their careers for fears of not showing up perfect. (For example, in "The Confidence Gap" by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Atlantic.)

Maybe this is how it shows up in your life:

  • You aren’t sure you should ask for a raise, because there were those couple of times when you didn’t manage those projects perfectly.

  • You hesitate to volunteer for that challenging project because you’re not sure if you can pull it off flawlessly.  

  • You’re nervous for that big presentation because you’re not the best speaker.

  • You don’t hit publish on that new blog or music track because it's not as good at what other people compose.

What if “they” find out you’re not perfect?  

The Link Between Stress & Perfection

I’ve got a challenge for you this week. Keep an eye out for moments when you’re stressed.

Catch yourself in that moment and investigate: “Am I asking myself to be perfect here?”

For many of us, our stress comes directly from this source.

We’re stressed because we think we need to do something perfectly, and it’s a major struggle to pull it off.

Or we’re stressed because we did pull something off perfectly (and it nearly killed us) – and nobody seems to notice.

Ugh. Miserable.

Lessons Learned from Steve

Here are the top five pieces of wisdom about perfectionism that I've pulled from Steve Jobs’ story:

  1. Aiming for perfection in your work can have remarkable results. Truly.

  2. Perfection as a driving force needs to be handled carefully, because seeking results at the cost of all else (including relationships) can alienate you from others.

  3. No one is perfect. You’re not fooling anyone into thinking you’re perfect. Think of someone close to you. How easily can you list off all their imperfections? Do you love them anyway? I bet you do.

  4. Vision, laser-focus and risk-taking drive big achievements. 

  5. You do not need to look perfect or behave perfectly to be successful. “People-Pleasing” does not necessarily equal “Earning Respect.”

Here’s one last question I’d like to leave you with this week:

What would you do – or try – if you weren’t worried about having to do it perfectly?

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