Are you a perfectionist? Here are 4 tips to prepare you to take imperfect action in business.
You know that gut-wrenching feeling you get when you have to jump into something before you feel “ready”? The feeling accompanied by insane levels of imposter syndrome and anxiety that you’ll get “found out”?
I can deeply relate to that feeling — it’s one I spent most of my life actively trying to avoid.
Then I decided to start my own service business.
This is the entrepreneurial log of a recovering Perfectionist. In this article, I share 4 tips I used to shift my perfectionist tendencies, which might help prepare you to start taking imperfect action too.
A shadow side to every gift
When kicking off with a new coaching client, I always ask them to take the free High 5 Strengths test so we can strategise how they can use them more in their business.
But every strength has a shadow side.
One of my own Top 5 Strengths is Learner, and the flipside of being really good at learning? A tendency for extreme perfectionism. Since it’s so easy for me to learn things, I’m tempted to want to know everything and be fully certain of each step before taking a single one, which has held me back from taking action on my ideas for a lot of my life.
On a macro level, I believe we’ve all had a bit too much of the Perfectionist Learner trait drummed into us by our industrial education system. Creative risk-taking, experimentation and imperfect action are positively discouraged — punished even! — in schools designed to produce compliant employees and orderly managers.
We live in a culture that fetishises certainty; where saying, “I don’t know yet” or “I’m just trying something out” out loud feels shameful. We eagerly follow those who seem confident and certain, who make promises to guarantee our future, and who tell us that everything will work out as long as we just memorise some method or follow the recipe.
So, by the time we arrive in adulthood, we’re absolutely petrified of the unknown or of doing anything that’s less than perfect right off the bat.
But as online entrepreneur James Wedmore says, “Becoming a successful entrepreneur means unlearning EVERYTHING you were taught by people who are not entrepreneurs”.
So when it came to launching my own business, I decided to follow his advice.
Imperfect Action in Practice
I quit my corporate job with 4 months of living expenses and very little idea of what I was going to be doing. Instead, I embraced the uncertainty and the fact I didn’t know anything. I took small, imperfect action:
- I started to work with what I knew: small clients in my network, experimenting and learning about the kind of work I enjoyed, getting feedback about what clients saw as most valuable.
- I gave myself space to evaluate: by reflecting on what was and wasn’t working for me on a quarterly basis and deciding on my next action steps.
- I repeated steps 1 and 2 multiple times.
Since March 2018, my business has been through several iterations: freelance social media manager, then a brand strategy consultancy for startups, then a Virtual Marketing Director building out my own teams to serve clients…
And now I do have clarity. Two years and 20 clients later, I’ve created the business model and title that fits me like a tailor-made suit: Strategy Coach.
I’ve invented my own dream job of Strategy Coaching – a hybrid between brand strategy and life coaching — to meet a need that was so glaringly obvious to me in the market: helping entrepreneurial people be more purposeful, productive and present in life and business.
But I would never have been able to come up with that whilst daydreaming at my desk in my corporate job. It was only going to be revealed to me by taking imperfect action.
Here are some more ways I took imperfect action on in the early days of my business:
- I talked about how my skills and strengths could help people from Day 1, and made £30k in sales before I had a website, testimonials or results to show.
- I spoke on stage at a business conference organised by a prestigious UK bank just 6 weeks after starting out alongside industry speakers with 20 years of experience. Because I asked the organisers if I could.
- I pitched my first brand strategy package before I had read any books on brand strategy (but I read them very quickly once the client signed — thanks to my Learner strength!)
Did I feel “ready” before doing any of those things? Hell no!
Did I experience insane levels of imposter syndrome and worry I’d get “found out” for not actually being ready? Hell yes!
But here’s what I realised when I did all those things and survived:
People don’t need you to be perfect in order for you to provide value. They just need you to be one or two steps ahead of them.
Where we get it wrong when we try to launch perfectly
We think we’ll make the outcome better by being perfectly ready. But our own idea of what’s perfect and our target audience’s idea is often very different.
Imagine two scenarios:
You spend 1 year in isolation thinking, preparing and perfecting something before taking action.
You spend 1 month preparing and 11 months actively testing and tweaking your idea out in the real world with real people.
Which do you think will be more “perfect” after 1 year?
When we’ve been well trained to ‘get the right answer’, it’s hard to go back to being a beginner or to be seen getting something just a little bit wrong.
So here are 4 tips I now swear by when preparing to take imperfect action:
- Move out of the emotional and into the rational. Put your scientist hat on and treat it as an experiment. Scientists don’t feel like bad people because one of their experiments didn’t work out — they try thousands of times before they reach the right formula. With imperfect action, the objective is to learn and improve, not to get an instant perfect result.
- Start with small actions and stretch the muscle over time. Don’t reach for the big weights straight away. Start with small risks, then quickly move up.
- Make a ‘What I Trust’ list. List out all the things you can trust about yourself and others, and keep your list to hand for wobbly moments. When you’re clear and comforted by which parts of the sky won’t fall down when you do something that feels like a risk, taking imperfect actions feels easier.
- Acknowledge that you will probably never feel good enough, ready enough or ‘Expert’ enough. Never. Never Ever! Embrace the fact that the goalposts will always keep moving — that’s what keeps the game of life fun.
I always keep this quote in mind whenever I feel myself backing out of taking action on my goals:
There are people less qualified than you, doing the things you want to do, simply because they decided to believe in themselves.
The clarity and the results you’re dreaming of? They’re probably behind the imperfect action you’re avoiding.
Try imperfect action for yourself. I dare you.