Optimal Work - APPLICATIONS - The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar

The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)


Chapter 6. Optimal Work

If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.

Thomas J. Watson

A my Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, was a doctoral student when I was an undergraduate. We both worked with Professor Richard Hackman, one of the leading scholars in the field of organizational behavior. In her research, Amy wanted to show that hospital staff who were members of groups that met Hackman’s conditions for effective teamwork—conditions such as clear and compelling goals and appropriate resources—were less likely to make medical errors.

This was obviously important research, as patients are occasionally injured and sometimes even die as a result of avoidable errors. Moreover, there is a high financial cost to medical mistakes, not least because of malpractice lawsuits and insurance costs. After years of data collection, data entry, and calculations, Amy had her results, and, as she had hoped, they were statistically significant—but not in the way she had expected. Groups that met Hackman’s conditions for effectiveness seemed to make more mistakes rather than fewer. This contradicted decades of research. What was going on? How could well-led teams be making more errors? And then it dawned on her that the good teams “don’t make more mistakes, they report more.”1

Amy went back to the hospital to test her revised hypothesis, and what she found was indeed that the teams that met Hack-man’s conditions for success were making significantly fewer errors. Because members of the teams that did not meet these conditions were concealing their errors, to the outside observer it seemed that they were making fewer errors, when in fact they were making more. It was only with respect to errors that could not be concealed—such as the death of a patient—that it was clear which groups were getting it wrong more often.

Amy’s research took the concept of “learn to fail or fail to learn” from the individual realm and applied it to groups and organizations.2 In a world where change is the only constant, where personal improvement and organizational learning are essential for competitiveness, fear of reporting a failure is a recipe for long-term failure. Well-led teams, Amy discovered, enjoyed psychological safety—the confidence that no member of the team would be embarrassed or punished if she spoke out, asked for assistance, or failed in a specific task.3 When team leaders create a climate of psychological safety, when members feel comfortable “failing” and then sharing and discussing their mistakes, all members of the team can learn and improve. In contrast, when mistakes are concealed, learning is less likely to take place, and the likelihood that errors will be repeated is higher.

In the 1980s the Israeli Air Force instituted a no-blame policy that encouraged pilots and units to report errors and near misses. The removal of the threat of punishment created a safe organizational environment within which learning could take place. The effect of the policy was that the number of reported errors increased, while the number of actual errors decreased significantly. The U.S. Air Force has a similar policy in place: pilots are not penalized for errors, provided they report them within twenty-four hours. However, pilots who attempt to conceal errors and are found out are punished.

Learning from Failure

By creating a psychologically safe environment, great corporate leaders increase the likelihood of bringing out the Optimalist in every employee. Robert Wood Johnson II (also known as General Johnson) took a small family business and transformed it into one of the largest pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers in the world. Johnson & Johnson has been extremely successful, not least because its management understands the importance of learning from mistakes.

Early on in his career, Jim Burke, the highly successful CEO of Johnson & Johnson for thirteen years until his retirement in 1989, was taught by General Johnson the importance of learning from mistakes. After Burke developed a new product that turned out to be a total dud, he was called in by General Johnson, who was chairman of the board at the time. Burke expected to be fired. Instead, General Johnson extended his hand and said:

I just want to congratulate you. All business is making decisions, and if you don’t make decisions you won’t have any failures. The hardest job I have is getting people to make decisions. If you make the same decision wrong again, I’ll fire you. But I hope you’ll make a lot of others, and that you’ll understand there are going to be more failures than successes.

Burke went on to embrace the same philosophy when he became CEO: “We don’t grow unless we take risks. Any successful company is riddled with failures.” Before joining Johnson & Johnson, Burke had failed at three other businesses. By making his failures public, by telling and retelling the story of his encounter with General Johnson, Burke sent an important message to his employees.


Think about an error that was made at an organization you worked for or that you know well. What was learned from the mistake? What more could have been learned?

Great managers become great by allowing themselves and others to fail and to learn from mistakes. Typically, however, when we read about these corporate leaders, we are told a lot about their achievements and very little (if anything) about the many mistakes that paved the road to success. Just as very few people know about Babe Ruth’s strikeout record or the number of times Michael Jordan missed a game-winning shot, few people know about the numerous failures experienced by the innovative founder of Virgin Group Richard Branson, or the courageous Washington Post CEO Katharine Graham, or the resourceful Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons, or the legendary president of IBM Thomas Watson.

Many leaders or aspiring leaders erroneously believe that their role models’ road to success was free of failures or mistakes. Trying to emulate their heroes, they themselves do all that they can to avoid or hide failure. They stop taking risks (failing to learn from failure) and become extremely defensive (failing to learn from feedback). Maintaining the appearance of perfection becomes more important than learning and growing. Sidney Finkelstein, who studied major business mistakes in more than fifty organizations, notes:

Ironically enough, the higher people are in the management hierarchy, the more they tend to supplement their perfectionism with blanket excuses, with CEOs usually being the worst of all. For example, in one organization we studied, the CEO spent the entire forty-five-minute interview explaining all the reasons why others were to blame for the calamity that hit his company. Regulators, customers, the government, and even other executives within the firm—all were responsible. No mention was made, however, of personal culpability.4

This attitude among business leaders is harmful. First, employees follow the example of their boss, doing what he does rather than what he says. If a manager never admits to failure or never learns from his mistakes, then his calls to his employees to do so will likely fall on deaf ears. Second, such behavior only exacerbates what Daniel Goleman calls the CEO disease—“the information vacuum around a leader created when people withhold important (and usually unpleasant) information.”5

The CEO disease is common in organizations. Management consultant Tom Peters points out that “senior managers will be shielded from most bad news,” particularly when employees notice that their boss receives bad news with resistance, with excuses, or, worst, by shooting the messenger.

The reluctance of subordinates to provide feedback deprives leaders of one of the most important developmental resources available to them. Traditionally, the boss commented on the performance of his employees; to this day managers tend to feel more comfortable when feedback, especially negative feedback, flows from the top down rather than in the other direction. As it turns out, however, the appraisal by employees of their boss tends to be more accurate and a better predictor of long-term success than the appraisal by the boss of her subordinates.6 As Jack Welch, Bill George, Anita Roddick, and other successful leaders have often stated, facing reality is one of the pillars of successful individuals and successful companies. When accurate information that is in the possession of employees does not reach the higher echelons, management loses out, as does the organization as a whole.

If a manager’s behavior toward employees is harsh and disrespectful, employees will naturally feel reluctant to speak up. However, being pleasant and respectful is not always enough. To inoculate the organization against the CEO disease, the leader must consistently solicit feedback, generously reward honesty, and make sure that the bearer of bad news will be treated at least as well as the bearer of good news. Leaders, whether in business or elsewhere, must create an environment in which people not only are permitted to deliver the news that no one wants to hear but are actively encouraged to do so.


Do you know a leader who creates an environment that is conducive to learning from mistakes? What are some of the specific things that this leader does?

Learning from failure is easier said than done. In their work on organizational learning, Mark Cannon and Amy Edmondson show that while most organizations pay lip service to the importance of learning from mistakes, very few organizations actually do so in practice.7 This is because looking good is often a stronger motivation than being good (by owning up to, and learning from, one’s failures). Cannon and Edmondson suggest dealing with the pervasive fear of failure by reframing our view of mistakes: “As human beings, we are socialized to distance ourselves from failures. Reframing failure so that we regard it not as something associated with shame and weakness but as something associated with risk, uncertainty and improvement is a critical first step on the learning journey.” The leader who is able to change the way members of her organization perceive failure is well on her way to creating a true learning organization, one that is competitive, adaptive, resilient, and pleasant to work for.

Perfectionism and Micromanagement

In some of the most insightful work done on perfectionism and workplace performance, Robert Hurley and James Ryman distinguish between apprehensive Perfectionists and healthy Perfectionists.8 The apprehensive Perfectionist is primarily driven by the fear of making mistakes or failing to meet his own (or others’) expectations of him. His primary motivation is avoiding failure, and he “plays not to lose.” The healthy Perfectionist, what I call the Optimalist, does not like failing either, but he recognizes that, like everyone else, he is fallible and that failure provides an opportunity for learning. His primary motivation is achieving excellence, and he “plays to win.”

The performance and job satisfaction of the apprehensive Perfectionist suffer, as do those of his employees. The most common behavior that the apprehensive Perfectionist displays is micro-management, which is his attempt to eliminate the possibility of mistakes among his subordinates.

Obviously, there are times when closely scrutinizing employees’ work is exactly what a manager should be doing. For example, preparing a comprehensive report to potential investors that could determine the future of the organization is important, and the manager in charge should check and recheck for errors among those contributing to the report. But when, regardless of the importance of the project, the manager scrutinizes every action taken by every employee under the guise of “making sure” or “responsible practice,” then there is a problem.

To know when to wield control and when to yield it is the mark of an optimalist manager. While there is, unfortunately, no precise formula, a useful principle to follow is to exercise as much control as necessary and as little control as possible. Contrary to the Perfectionist’s belief, not all failures are created equal. In situations where the consequences of imperfect performance are relatively harmless, it is best to relax managerial control as far as possible. This provides a great opportunity for subordinates to undertake independent work and gives them the chance to take real risks. If the subordinates succeed, they grow as they develop confidence. If they fail, they grow as they learn without the organization having incurred too much harm in the process. Moreover, subordinates, especially competent ones, are likely to leave a workplace if they feel that they are unnecessarily micromanaged. The perfectionist manager loses out, as do his employees and the organization: the best people leave, and those who remain fail to learn.

Working Hard, Working Smart

One of the consequences of unhealthy perfectionism that Hurley and Ryman point to is burnout, a phenomenon familiar to many Perfectionists, myself included. As far back as I can remember, I knew that hard work is the key to success. The two quotes that are etched in my mind are “There is no substitute for hard work” (attributed to Thomas Edison) and “The harder I work, the luckier I get” (attributed to Thomas Jefferson). When I played squash, competitors would sometimes say behind my back that if they had trained as hard as I had, they also could have won the championship. For me, this was the greatest compliment (even if usually not intended as such), because they were probably right.

The Perfectionist in me, though, at times took the mantra of hard work too far, or rather in the wrong direction. For many years I was emotionally sustained by another quote, made famous by California’s governor when he was still the Terminator: “I am a machine.” As a sportsman, I was flattered when squash aficionados noted that I trained and played like a well-oiled machine; my approach to the game was scientific and systematic, I was hardworking and disciplined, I rarely showed emotion on court, and no matter how tired I was, I never allowed my opponent to know it. This approach usually served me well, but it also exacted a high price when I applied it indiscriminately. Consistency and endurance are important to success. But to aspire to machinelike qualities where emotions are concerned—to ignore one’s feelings and needs—is a prescription for unhappiness and, ultimately, failure. The constant stress that I experienced while playing squash, the burnout in the form of lost motivation and waning drive, the injuries that eventually ended my career—all of these were products of the perfectionist, machinelike approach.

In the 1960s Australian Derek Clayton was among the least gifted marathon runners in the world. Six feet two inches tall with a relatively low oxygen-intake capacity, he had a body type that was anything but ideal for long-distance running. Nevertheless, he made up for his imperfect physical attributes by working harder than anyone else, running as many as 160 miles a week. While his grueling regime initially paid off, he eventually hit a brick wall, reaching what appeared to be the limit of his natural potential. With a personal best of over two hours and seventeen minutes, more than five minutes slower than the world’s best time, he could not quite compete with the top runners of his generation. Beyond a certain point, working harder, piling on the miles, did not lead to improved performance.

But it did lead to injuries. Preparing for the 1967 Fukuoka marathon in Japan, Clayton was forced to take an entire month off to recuperate from his injuries. Disappointed that his momentum was disrupted by injury, he nevertheless decided to run the Japanese marathon as part of his preparation for the subsequent race. To his and everyone else’s surprise, after an entire month with no training, Clayton proceeded to break his personal record by more than eight minutes, becoming the first person in history to run a marathon in under two hours and ten minutes. In 1969 he was injured again, this time while preparing for the Antwerp marathon. Following his forced period of inactivity, Clayton again broke his personal and world record, stopping the clock at two hours, eight minutes, thirty-three seconds. This record held for twelve years.

Clayton’s story and others like it highlight the importance of recovery. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a coach or an athlete who does not take the need for rest as seriously as he does the need for intensive training. Sadly, this understanding has not caught on in the workplace. Driven employees settle for nothing less than hard work followed by even harder work. Demanding managers expect machinelike performance from their teams and think nothing of expecting their employees to be available by e-mail or by phone on weekends and on vacation. Moreover, employees often internalize their managers’ expectations; they feel guilty if they are not in the office on the weekend, and they interrupt their own vacation to monitor e-mails obsessively and to make sure that everything is running smoothly in their absence.

In their work on “corporate athletes,” Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz demonstrate that to achieve peak performance on the field or in the office we must take into consideration our human needs—specifically, the need for recovery.9 Failure to do so exacts a high price from individual employees, as well as from the organization as a whole. As Loehr and Schwartz note, “Executives need to learn what world-class athletes already know: recovering energy is as important as expending it.”


Clayton was a Perfectionist, believing that the harder he worked, the better he would become. Then physical injuries forced him against his will to behave like an Optimalist. Reluctantly, he took time off for recovery—and realized his potential. In the psychological realm, injuries come in the form of emotional harm; feeling lethargic, anxious, or depressed are some of the signals that we need some time to recover. These signals, unlike physical injuries, are more subtle and easier to discount. And it is not uncommon for a person to continue working just as hard, if not harder, while the mind and the heart are pleading for a break.

Emotional signals can be ignored or suppressed with drugs. Taking in some caffeine for a 3 P.M. energy boost may be fine (assuming an afternoon nap is not an option), but regularly relying on caffeine to stay awake because we only get three or four hours of sleep is physically and psychologically unhealthy. Similarly, addiction to nicotine, alcohol, or other relaxants is not a substitute for taking time to relax in a natural way, by breathing deeply or exercising. Psychiatric medication is necessary in some situations but not when the painful emotions are simply a result of working ourselves into depression. Painful emotions are the body’s natural warning system, and we disregard them at our peril.

Inadequate rest is, of course, not the only cause of lethargy, anxiety, or depression, but in the kind of world we live in, it is a major cause. There is nothing wrong with hard work per se. Long hours and a focused effort can be beneficial, as long as the time you spend at the office does not come at the expense of other activities that could make you happier. The problem in today’s corporate world, as well as in many other realms, is not hard work; the problem is insufficient recovery.

Multilevel Recovery

A robot will not get anxious or depressed, tired or injured; it may perhaps require some fine-tuning once in a while, a new battery, or a spare part but otherwise does not need much by way of maintenance. But imagine a robot—or a computer, a car, or a TV set, for that matter—that needs to shut down for fifteen minutes every couple of hours, that needs to spend eight hours of every twenty-four-hour cycle turned off, that needs to recharge for a full day after every five or six full-day cycles. Oh, and to top it all, the robot needs two to four weeks’ downtime each year. A lousy machine. And a real, fully functioning human being.

According to Loehr and Schwartz, we need to replace the metaphor we currently use to describe the way we work. We should not think of the employee as a marathon runner who works long and hard until she drops but as a sprinter who alternates intensive work and recovery. This new metaphor should be applied to the micro-, mid-, and macrolevels of recovery.

On the microlevel, rather than trying to push ourselves for fourteen hours with little rest (the marathon runner mode), we need to alternate between work and rest: ninety minutes or so of intensive work followed by at least fifteen minutes of full recovery. Recovery can come in the form of meditating, exercising, listening to music, spending time with family or friends, having a quiet meal, taking a walk around the block, chatting with coworkers, or doing anything else we enjoy and find relaxing. Whether our workday is six or sixteen hours long, we need to punctuate it with regular breaks.

Most people, if they are not too tired, can maintain focused intensity at work for anywhere between one and two hours at a time. After that, performance drops and we get significantly less return for our effort. Taking a short break helps recharge our energy levels, and we are again able to sustain focused intensity. Needless to say, the cycle of ninety minutes on and fifteen minutes off cannot go on indefinitely, and after a while we need a longer break.

Midlevel recovery includes adequate sleep, which for most people means between seven and nine hours in each twenty-four-hour period. If we deprive ourselves of sleep on a regular basis and rely instead on chemical stimulants to keep us awake, we pay a price in the form of decreased creativity and productivity, as well as an increased risk of depression and anxiety. A day of rest each week is critical for recovery. Even God needed a day off! In fact, people who put their work aside for a day each week report that they are more creative and productive the rest of the week.

Recovery on the macrolevel is about taking a vacation—a week to a month off at least once a year. While many Type A individuals feel guilty taking time off, they should keep in mind that relaxing for a while is a good investment. We get our best ideas and are most creative when we introduce space into our tight schedules: the connection between recreation and creation is not just etymological. We become more productive overall, as time off recharges our batteries. A long vacation once a year or, better yet, a slightly shorter vacation every six months goes a long way not only toward helping us make the most of our potential but also toward maintaining our psychological and physical well-being. As J. P. Morgan once remarked, “I can do a year’s work in nine months, but not in twelve.”

This does not mean that we cannot cope with difficult phases when marathon days, weeks, or even months are required. The birth of a new child, for example, leads to a period of intensity where recovery is a scarce commodity. Once in a while our work may present special challenges that demand extra effort from us. Our bodies and minds were created to handle such periods, at work or in our personal lives, provided there is recovery at the end of the marathon.

Many people wonder why it is that despite rising levels of material affluence, levels of depression and anxiety are so much higher today than they were thirty or forty years ago. One reason is simply that today there is greater awareness of mental health issues; many people are diagnosed today with a disorder that would have gone unnoticed a few decades ago. But that’s not the entire story. The rise in suicide levels throughout the world clearly illustrates that there is an increase in the number of people confronting mental health problems. One major reason is that our lives have become significantly busier, and we have far fewer opportunities for recovery.

Growing up, I remember my parents having friends over on weekends as well as occasionally on weeknights. They would all sit around talking, eating, relaxing, and laughing. Today, my friends and I get together far less frequently, and when we do, we are often on the phone, checking our e-mail, generally distracted and restless. And we pay a price, because rather than recovering, we are adding to the stress.

We have a primal need for pleasure and recreation, but, as humans with free will, we can choose to ignore this need, to over-come our instincts and go against our nature. We convince ourselves that there is no limit to how far we can push ourselves, that just as science produces better, faster, more reliable and steady machines, we too can hone our abilities through modifying our nature. Adhering to the unconstrained view of human nature, we attempt to train ourselves to need less downtime—to sleep less, to rest less, to cease less—to do more and stretch ourselves beyond our limits. But, like it or not, there is a limit, and if we continue to violate nature’s demands, to abuse ourselves, we will pay the price—individually and as a society.

The rising levels of mental health problems, coupled with improved psychiatric medication, are thrusting us toward a brave new world. To reverse direction, rather than listening to advertisers who promise us the wonder drug, the magic pill that will improve performance and mood, we need to listen to our nature and rediscover its wonders. Regular recovery, on the micro-, mid-, and macrolevels, can often do the work of psychiatric medicine, only naturally.

Introducing recovery in all aspects of my life has transformed my overall experience. In four or five intensive hour-and-a-half sessions, each followed by at least fifteen minutes of recovery, I get just about as much done as I did previously in a twelve-hour marathon day. Taking one full day off every week makes me more productive overall rather than less so. And finally, I have come to see vacations as both enjoyable and a good investment. As a sprinter today, I get as much work done as I did previously as a marathon runner—in a lot less time and with a lot more energy and positive emotions. I spend more time with my family and friends, and when I do, I am more present. There is no magic here; I am simply paying better attention to my human needs.

I’m off to meditate now. I suggest you take a break, too—perhaps a Time-In?


Are you getting enough recovery time? Do you take enough breaks during the day? Are you getting sufficient sleep each night? Do you take a day off once a week? When was your last vacation? When is the next one?

To my mind, the most important and exciting research in the area of organizational behavior explores how job satisfaction and job performance converge. They don’t always converge; happier employees are not necessarily better employees. However, when it comes to perfectionism, the research is fairly clear: happiness and success do go together. In other words, not only are Optimalists more satisfied with their work, but their performance is generally better than that of Perfectionists.

There is much that a manager can do to bring out and reinforce the Optimalist in the employees. Instituting a psychologically safe environment leads to more learning and therefore to better long-term performance than an environment in which employees fear reporting failure. Instituting regular rest periods not only contributes to psychological health but also helps us achieve more.

Sounds like a good deal to me.


Image Learning from Your Best Past

Write about a period—anywhere between a month and a year—when you thrived at work, when, in comparison to other times, you felt yourself most satisfied, productive, and creative. If you have not worked for long enough or cannot think of such a period, write about another time when you thrived—at school, for instance.

What was it about what you did then that led you to thrive? What form of recovery did you have in place? Whom did you work with? Most importantly, what can you learn from what you did then, and how can you apply it to what you are doing now or will be doing in the future?

In writing, commit to possible steps that you can take to work with people or in situations that bring out the best in you. In your date book, enter recovery sessions in the form of regular gym classes, outings with friends, and longer vacations with your family.

Just as you look at your own experiences, look at other people, at work or elsewhere. Ask yourself what you can learn from them, in terms of what you want to do and how you want to be, as well as in terms of what you would like to avoid.