A Valuable Lesson I Learned About Perfectionism, Effort, and Anxiety
In late August of 2000, I started working for a home construction company, reconciling construction cost variance. (I know…hope all of you aren’t asleep just reading that sentence.)
In hopefully plainer, simpler terms, it was my job to take what the construction supervisors actually spent on the material and labor to build the actual home, compare it to what the estimators and architects THOUGHT should be the amount of materials and labor expended to build the home, and make detailed notes about the differences. Like…if the architects drew a 300 square foot roof with 3 gables and seven vents, and the estimators calculated that took 5 squares of 400 shingles to cover, but the builder actually had to order another square of shingles because he was 200 shingles short, I had to note that difference, plus the cost of the difference, and the reason for the difference (plan error…the roof really needed eight vents…or…theft…someone stole half a square of shingles…or whatever…)
I used the invoices from vendors from whom we bought materials and scheduled outside labor, and communication with them, and the architects, estimators, and construction supervisors to figure all this out. The goal was to have the perfect $0.00 balance for each section (roofing, concrete, appliances, lighting, flooring, etc.) of each home. The point of my job was to improve the construction conditions in the field, the schedule timing to get a new home built, and the accuracy of the plans and estimates. My job was to make everyone else’s job easier, and everyone else’s timing and cost efficiency bonuses higher.
My first month on the job, as a 21-year-old working my first full time job right out of college, I was really determined to get that $0.00 on every section I was assigned. I wanted to do a good job. To me, it was the same as being determined to get A’s on tests and research papers in school (only more important, because other people’s job ease, security, and money were dependent on me…not just my own grade). And for a MONTH, I succeeded with every assignment. I always got the perfect zero. (That’s funny, isn’t it? ‘Perfect zero?’ But that’s how I looked at it.) And then I got an assignment that no matter how much I researched, no matter how many times I ran the numbers to find my own math error, I was off $0.21. I worked for most of a day on that $0.21 overage I couldn’t explain. Finally, my team lead, K, who was the person who hired me, and a really nice man, and the person I immediately reported to asked me for my assignment, because I’d never taken so long with one before. I told him I couldn’t find the $0.21. I felt defeated. I’d let him down. I’d let down everybody who was counting on me and my perfect zeroes to make their job better and easier.
K listened to me and kind of chuckled, not at me, but just…at how diligent I was to reconcile that $0.21. He said, “Jen? It’s $0.21. That’s less than a quarter. On a section that we estimated over $40K in material and labor and spent over $42K in material and labor. It’s less than a quarter. How much do you make an hour?” <For the record, the maximum salary I’ve ever made in my life with a summa cum laude Bachelor’s degree was $15/hour, which is the suggested minimum wage now…so I made significantly less than that then.> I told him my hourly rate. And he explained that not only had I caused myself undue frustration and anxiety, but it could be argued that I actually cost the company money by spending several hours of my time trying to find $0.21. That my hourly rate times my time, even discounting my personal anxiety is way way way greater than $0.21. “It’s not worth all this for $0.21, Jen.”
And that’s social anxiety/perfectionism/Impostor Syndrome/whatever mental health issue cocktail I personally fight all the time in a nutshell. I run around and fret about $0.21 of unexplained variance, when I’ve managed to account for $40K+ of things correctly. I’m focused on that $0.21 of imperfection, and I’m convinced everyone else is too, when really, most of the time, the people who care are paying way more attention to the $40K+ of quality work/interaction/explanation/whatever. And now, sometimes, I stop and tell myself that, ‘It’s $0.21,’ when I recognize myself putting too much of myself into something that is insignificant, or something that isn’t worth my all out effort…something that’s wasting my time and anxiety when I could be putting that all out effort into things where I could make more difference; make more progress; get more joy and less anxiety.