Attention to Detail vs. The Curse of Perfectionism

Originally I was going to write an article about how paying attention to detail and "going the extra mile" is a fairly simple way to make yourself stick out from the crowd. I still believe this, but I realized that it is a more complex issue than I initially thought. As with almost anything in life, there is a delicate balance between two extremes that must be negotiated. Attention to detail vs. the curse of perfectionism, a battle royale for information workers everywhere!

People like to be recognized for hard work. Everyone has their own reason for working hard, whether it be in the hopes of a promotion, to impress someone, or because of their own innate desire to do good work. Whatever the motivation, good work is the goal. In an environment where you might be vying for attention or prestige, taking the time to pay attention to the details of your work can be what separates you from the pack. When I student taught, I tried to make sure that all of the handouts I made for my students, all the presentations that I gave, and all the homework I assigned were free from grammatical and typographical errors and were very well formatted. When I was a student, I was always annoyed to receive a worksheet with a spelling error on it or when I had to look at a PowerPoint slide that looked like it was thrown together by a 2nd grader. I think these transgressions, albeit minor, really give off a sentiment of carelessness by the teacher. The last thing I want my students to think is that I'm careless or sloppy in my own preparation. How can I demand top-notch work from them if I can't demand top-notch work from myself?

However, this can be a dangerous and slippery slope. While attention to detail is important, obsession to detail is self-defeating. The saying, "The enemy of the good is the perfect," fits this concept very well. How many times have you been afraid to start a project because you got bogged down by the details? Have you ever had to write a paper and spent more than two seconds thinking about a title before having even typed a sentence? Or, on the flip side of that, have you ever felt like a project wasn't finished because you just had "one more little thing" to do to it?

I quickly discovered while I was student teaching that at some point I just had to admit to myself that my lesson might not be as perfect as I wanted it, but it would be suitable. I always wanted to add a couple more pictures to a slideshow, or look up a couple more facts for my lecture, or change the wording on my worksheets a little bit more. It was tough for me to admit that I would never create the perfect class materials, just like I would never be the perfect teacher or perfect anything else-- and that's OK.

So, how can I sit here in good conscience and tell you to pay attention to the details in order to stand out while simultaneously stating that striving for perfection is folly? I don't pretend to know where that equilibrium between the two extremes lies. I think I am constantly finding out for myself. Sometimes I feel like I should have spent more time on something, and sometimes I feel like I passed the "sweet spot" on a project several hours earlier. However, if you keep these two conflicting principles in mind I think you are much more likely to come closer to that ultimate balance.