Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Reader Mail: 7 Perspectives on Perfectionism & Making Mistakes

Hello, new and returning readers!  Happy New Year!  I realize I haven’t posted since June.  Yikes!  2014 was an extremely busy and super fun year!  

I’ve been getting all of your great questions and comments.  They are all such good questions and pressing questions that I am honored, and flattered, and excited that you write to me.  However, I do have a confession to share with you, my dear readers.

I think the hardest part of writing this blog is not being able to answer every single one of your questions or concerns.  And it’s not because of lack of time or lack of interest.  My absence, my lack of responding, or my lack of infrequent posts is most often because I do not have the answer either.  I don’t even have an interesting inner dialogue of ponderings.  If I was forced to write a post it’d be one word entries such as:

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

In all honesty, more often than I care to admit, I do not know what to tell you or how to even begin to address your situation.  Sometimes your question is the exact same question I am asking myself or the universe.  Other times, I realize I don’t have enough information.  Or I know the answer really has to come from YOU, WITHIN you, somewhere deep in your heart or a tiny seed of an idea in your brain.  And it is only something you will discover if you give yourself time, patience, love, and age a little bit or move through life with a plan, or most likely without a plan…  

I believe the best answers and revelations come in that quiet moment when one day something just clicks in your brain.  All the cogs, screws and inner workings of your mind just move a millimeter to the left or the right and things fall into place like a solved Rubic’s cube.  So this is why I am silent at times.  

I am searching just as much as you are; I am bathing in stillness in search of enlightenment.  

Which leads me to today’s reader mail; I am excited about it.  They don’t ask a question, per se, but that’s the brilliance of it.

“Thank you for your blog posts, which I read heartily and with intense interest! I've been an EA for nearly 20 years and have come to realize that the longer one is engaged with this work, the more specialized a field it becomes, and the harder it is to find others who relate to the particular challenges that the position presents over time. Your blog is an amazing resource for people like us. So, again, thank you!

I struggle with perfectionism and would be very curious to hear your take on the subject. In other aspects of my life, I am trying to let go of the idea of perfection (I have two young children and I am a practicing artist), but in this position, I believe perfection is an expectation of the role, across the board. I understand the mechanisms at play but continue to find it emotionally difficult to reconcile the expectation of 100% accuracy in work when I am only able to deliver 95%, at most.

Please share your thoughts. I would love to hear them.”

Dear KJ,

Thank you for this great email.  Another reader just recently asked a question relating to this so it seems to be on everyone’s mind; because it is the New Year and it’s when most folks focus on change, improvement, goals, and resolutions.  I thought it was the perfect topic to tackle which is why I chose your self-aware, not quite-a-question email.  I might as well have written it myself.

I will respond by going through every line.  Some of what I say may or may not apply to you, but I like to explain in general and specific ways so everyone can relate.

I am glad you are enjoying my blog posts so much!  They take a lot of time and emotion to write, but I love it!  If I can help someone, even if only by listening, it brings me joy.  

I do agree that the longer one is an EA or any admin/customer service type role, the more specialized it is.  And the eye-opening part is, only you know how minute and intricate every step is.  A majority of the role is one-on-one, working with the specific person who delegated the task.  Every little task you handle is one-on-one directly involving that one other party.  And you take that information or action and move it along to another person or two.  And it’s a hundred of those steps every hour and day that unfolds into the finshed product.  Researching, scheduling, planning, and executing anything with internal staff, clients, vendors, and other external people is not truly visible because the role encompasses interacting with numerous people for their part.  The scope of coordinating, communication flow, and drop-ins are relatively behind closed doors.  80% of coordinating is not tangible and is unseen by most because it’s before the meeting.  10% of the work is visible via an actual meeting, event, or outcome.  10 % is after the task has been completed.  There’s post meeting clean up, polishing the notes you took and emailing them out, or circling back with everyone to make sure there aren’t any loose ends, etc.  And because reporting to an executive means they oversee an entire department or company, the EA's visibility is also high.  The number of people the EA helps and interacts with is more expansive than generally presumed.  Executing any task is a matter of clear communication, trouble shooting, problem solving, handling logistics, and wrangling people effectively which is the core of the job description.  Unfortunately, it is frequently masked under a succession of phone calls, writing emails, in person hallway conversations, and the daily grind of office life instead of impressive, large, shining dramatic achievements of stellar accomplishments.  

It also dawned on me that much of what we do escapes people’s comprehension completely.  I can only compare it to parenthood.  (And though I don’t have kids myself, I was a babysitter for infants and kids at 12 years old on.  Plus, I currently have 2 nephews, that are TWINS, that are 2 years old.  So I have some understanding, of especially motherhood, that all the blood, sweat, and tears that is and will be shed for a lifetime.)  

I compare being an EA to parenthood, especially those who are stay-at-home moms or single parents of any sex.  When most people ask stay-at-home parents, “what exactly are you doing all day at home?” it’s very insulting.  And it marginalizes parenthood because it seems so easy to “just” be at home, in pajamas, without showering, playing with kids all day, giving them naps, and snacks.  Most people seem to have the perception that parenting only takes 3 hours a day vs an entire day, that you can just plop your kids in front of a tv, food, or in their crib and call it a day.  If you have been around any children (and some flaky, unreliable adults) you know that any task takes 3x as long, if not more, than it “should.”  Hell, and excuse my language, but an in-depth email at the office will sometimes take me half an hour to write.  KJ, you hit the nail on the head when you say it gets harder to find others who relate to the particular challenges EAs face.  It’s mind-boggling how much EAs do and most people have NO IDEA.  Amirite?

Now let’s address perfectionism.  

You mention you struggle with perfectionism.  I am glad to hear you are trying to let go of being perfect.  I can see how being perfect can be a viewed as necessary and a requirement for an EA.  And you write you are still coming to terms with it emotionally - not being perfect and your 95% accuracy.  

First, CONGRATULATIONS on being 95% accurate.  Man, that is pretty high!  Yowser!  I wish I was that accurate!  So you have that going for you!  Yay!  Other readers, what would you say your accuracy rate is?  

And admittedly, I also struggle with perfectionism.  I think many EAs probably do too.  Because we are so organized, on top of everything, have a good memory, and are reliable people where our word means everything, I think we are more prone to be hard on ourselves.  We strive for/thrive on consistency, routines, patterns, and being there for people - so one mistake, one oversight, or being late one time (even though we accounted for traffic) can be worrisome to ourselves and perhaps others.   Because maybe, just maybe, it can be viewed as the beginning of our downfall which will come back to haunt us.  If you are a big fan of FRIENDS, one of their most popular episodes is when Rachel makes a dish for Thanksgiving and she’s so cautious because cooking is certainly not her forte.  She doesn’t want to get anything wrong and it be forever re-told as, “Remember that one Thanksgiving when Rachel screwed up the trifle?”  We don't want our own remember-that-one-time-you-messed-up to follow us around. 

I also feel that once we make one mistake, we think we only have 2 more strikes and we’re out.  Because one time can be a fluke or accident.  The second time we are not a victim to circumstance and the third time we are “just asking for it.” And in a society where we are reachable 24/7, hardly have any alone time, and are overworked, and stressed out at work and with life itself, the pressure to be perfect is unforgiving and relentless.  I hear you.  

While we all know being perfect is unnatural, impossible, and not realistic, we hold onto the hope that we if we are perfect, things will be fine or get better.  I think for women in particular, this is difficult to overcome because we are supposed to be all things to all people.  We are the caregivers, nurturers, and the people pleasers.  We are known to be excellent multitaskers, smart, and emotionally intelligent.  Not to say that men are not afflicted by perfection as well, they are and there are many male EAs out there.  It’s just hard to see the life lesson when CEOs, who are predominantly male, are messing up in a huge or public way and are getting million and billion dollar severance packages as "punishment."

So these are many of the thoughts that I’ve had since I was a teenager when my perfectionism reared its ugly head.  And as I struggle with it and read about it, this is what I try to keep in mind.  

7 Perspectives on Perfectionism

#1) I have  had many many amazing bosses, male and female, and this is what I’ve learned...

A good boss does not have the unrealistic expectation for you to be perfect.  They
understand the brain & humans are still evolving or that you have a life and identity outside of work.  

A good boss values thinking ahead, trouble shooting, problem solving, and persistence more.  

A good boss prioritizes enthusiasm, a willingness to learn, and staying in it for the long haul more than only sheer talent and smarts.

A good boss wants a committed interest in the job, going the extra mile, and an assistant who, for most of the day, enjoys being an assistant.  

They believe in thriving and not merely getting by.  And yes, it’s great if fewer mistakes are made, but for the most part, doing a very good job vs getting bent out of shape with unattainable absolute perfection will make them very happy.

A good boss knows not everything or everyone is magically there to make their life absolutely flawless and the business gods will grant their every single wish.  

A good boss will also admit their mistakes and flaws and show through their actions how they were able to bounce back.  

#2) You probably already know this, so it’s for newer/younger EAs…  I’m not saying you can’t strive to change or be better.  But when you make a mistake, the more you beat yourself up over it, the more time and energy you are losing to fix it or make it better.  Accept it, move on, and note what you can do better next time.  And sometimes the reality is not all of life’s and business’ problems are solvable.  Sometimes there is no answer.  Sometimes all it is for days is a game of the lesser of two evils.  It’s learning to accept that and deal with it repeatedly.  

#3) I’m sure you agree that the heart of being a supportive person, to anyone, is accepting them for who and what they are in that specific moment.  You can’t change or control anyone.  You can only control your thoughts, behavior, and actions.  And in accepting someone for who and what they are in that moment, you refrain from judgement, criticism, embarrassment, and minimizing their thoughts and feelings.  You show them unconditional support.  Only when one accepts a situation can the next step be taken.  That's when they will be more open to suggestions, brainstorming what to do next time, and on the path to change.  So treat yourself like you would treat your growing children or loved ones.  Refrain from judgement, criticism, and the negative internal dialogue.  You deserve just as much as they do, if not more so.  Or else how will you be able to be there for them?

#4) I read the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, Carly Fiorina’s book and she coined the phrase “perfect enough” because she struggled with perfectionism.  I thought it was a great solution for cognitive dissonance.  It’s similar to the phrases same difference or agree to disagree. It’s much more pleasant and easier to swallow.  So I think that should be the perfectionist’s mantra.  This is perfect enough!

#5) I am huge fan of reading online and I remember one time, someone asked what the down fall of being rich was.  As if there is one, right?  Well, a relatively young billionaire answered and said that because he was rich, he learned he was no longer allowed to complain, at all, ever.  Those that knew him well or didn’t would not hear of it.  As if he had no right, or had no feelings, or thoughts, or that life wasn’t hard, and people didn’t die, and bad things didn’t happen.  As if money was the sole provider of happiness.  That story struck a chord in me.  He, who did everything right with career, making money, and being able to provide “like real men should” had his human right to have feelings or be unhappy taken away.  By almost any measure he was a great success and because of that he was not allowed to have any imperfect views or feelings.  Life was supposed to absolutely perfect for him.

#6) As a teen I was very much into reading about civil rights.  And the more I read, it was distinguished that civil rights was the wrong term.  Equality is a human rights issue.  And I think it’s the same with perfectionism.  It’s not a women’s issue or professional issue.  It’s a human rights issue.  It is human to make mistakes, it’s expected.  Afterall, we are not robots.  And let’s just say we were robots.  Does your computer not freeze up?  Does your cell phone not malfunction?  Does your x,y,z not ever break?  Allow yourself to be okay with making mistakes.  It is the only right and humane thing to do.  

#7) Long time readers of this blog know I am a huge fan of Penelope Trunk.  I don’t know if I was reading her books or her blog, but I came across a story she once mentioned about Greek mythology.  I can’t remember what exactly she said or which Greek myth she was talking about, but my takeaway from it was this.  It’s good that we make mistakes and die.  I'll repeat that.  Yes, it’s good that we make mistakes and die.  Making mistakes and dying is what makes life meaningful and gives it purpose.  If we never made mistakes and never died, we’d constantly have chances to re-do things much like the immortal Greek gods.  If we could live forever re-doing everything then it means absolutely nothing would matter; it has no weight, no significance.  Knowing we will make mistakes, have regrets, will die someday, that life has a deadline, is precisely what makes it so precious, so valuable, and what makes life interesting.  Time is a zero sum game. Many people do not realize this or live as if they don’t.

It makes me think of Ground Hog Day, the movie.  I heard somewhere that the screenwriter envisioned that it took thousands of years for Bill Murray to change and catch on to the fact that he should do random acts of kindness.  Much like the movie, life will continue to give us the same set of scenarios until we learn and move on to the next lesson.  And it’s true, growing as a person, giving back, and becoming a part of something bigger than yourself is what often brings the most happiness to people.  Life is not about being perfect.  It’s about making mistakes, being human, and your collective life experience - the good and the bad.  Both aspects are needed.

I don’t know if my very long rambling was of any help at all.  In the end, I don’t have a great answer or an insider secret for you.  I can only suggest that you read books by Debbie Ford, Brene Brown, and Cheryl Strayed.  I don’t even have any grand conclusions or messages; yet I’m more and more accepting of that fact.  Life isn’t supposed to be tidy.

***New “rule” - when you ask me a question for anonymous advice and I answer it, could you write an anonymous comment so I know you read the post?  You can just write “Thx!” or something!  :) 

As always, I usually tweet any new posts I have. And anyone can email me questions and I respond only via this blog, not to your personal address.

I also write over at Jobstr.com under Hollywood Executive Assistant.



  1. Thanks for the 7 perspective on perfectionism - especially #1. Having a good boss helps in not beating yourself up when a mistake happens. I've had two instances (two different bosses) where I felt I needed to take more of the stick for the mistake but I didn't bear any of it. Blessed in both cases.

  2. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec Asst.January 13, 2015 at 7:11 PM

    Hello! I can't tell if you are the reader who originally submitted the question! :) Regardless, I am glad you liked the post!

  3. Thank you for all your great advise. In just this one blog I received valuable information. Especially as I am very new to the EA world.

    1. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Exec AsstJanuary 18, 2015 at 6:56 PM

      I am so glad you liked this post. Welcome to the EA world! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! Please read old posts too and my column at jobstr.com

  4. I know this is an "old" post, but boy did I need to read it. I've been beating myself up today for not being perfect. I feel like after 22 years of being an EA, I'm starting to lose my edge. It was one of those days where I could not do anything right. From major technical difficulties, to misunderstandings, to just plain old frustrations. Monday is a new day and I'm going to rock it!

  5. The Muser at Musings of a High Level Executive AssistantJanuary 7, 2018 at 3:11 PM

    Dear Unknown - Thank you so much for your comment. I am so sorry you had one of THOSE days. It happens to us all, and as you know, acknowledging your feelings is the first way to move on. I am glad you know MON is a new day and have the attitude to ROCK IT. Your comment made my day and thank you for being a reader!