Perfectionist vs. High Achiever – The Difference
Monday April 9, 2012

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“Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.”

-Dr. David M. Burns

Wanting everything exactly as you had imagined it, only to be a bit moody (perhaps an understatement) if everything isn’t just so. Unable to accept compliments from others because in your mind, you could have done better. Or lastly, not allowing yourself to feel good about accomplishing specific goals because they didn’t happen exactly as you had planned or follow the designated time frame.

If any, or all, of these scenarios are familiar, you, like myself, can identify with being a perfectionist. And while there are many wonderful attributes and rewards to being a perfectionist, I’d like to suggest to you today a better approach that will actually yield you more happiness, reduce your fear and continue to keep your productivity as high, or higher, than had you remained a perfectionist.

After much examination, the key difference between a perfectionist and a high achiever is their motivation. While, yes, admittedly, they both want to succeed, many perfectionists can take this drive to be successful too far and then find themselves solely motivated by fear. Put simply, “the high achiever has drive, and a perfectionist is driven”.

What does a perfectionist look like?

*fearful of failure and/or rejection – does things solely to NOT be laughed at, not to simply do their best.

*tends to have a lower self-esteem – typically, a perfectionist is seeking validation and hasn’t found it within themselves yet, and instead is seeking it externally which is never the answer as it can never be truly captured.

*dogged determination – while this is similarly found in high achievers, the difference is that the perfectionist focuses on the results and is unable to enjoy the journey.

*too rigid – a black and white perspective does not allow a perfectionist to see potential in ideas, people or scenarios that are outside of their box of understanding, thus shutting down possible opportunities.

*bristle when criticized – such moments sometimes result in the perfectionist losing confidence and questioning themselves unnecessarily.

Sometimes… when you hold out for everything, you walk away with nothing.  ~From the television show Ally McBeal

What does a high achiever look like?

*strives to do their best at all times – however, understands that mistakes may occur, but this doesn’t discourage them

*enjoys the journey just as much as the outcome

*resilient – with the understanding that mistakes will happen, they bounce back and start again with a new tactic or more tenacity, not becoming discouraged.

*Are comfortable with constructive criticism – sees it as another opportunity for growth and will aid them in becoming their best self.

While both perfectionists and high achievers have similar goals, there are key differences in their mindset and response to setbacks. So if you are a perfectionist and would like to train your tendencies to resemble more of a high achiever, below are a few things to tweak or think about:

1. Become at peace with yourself – if you are truly at peace with yourself, your actions won’t be dedicated by what you hope others will like/accept/applaud. While you may not have as many fans initially because you are willing to be yourself and not follow along, you will eventually find those that appreciate and accept who you are, as long as you are respectful of them as well.

2. Stop being a puppet – when we act out of fear, we are acting in a way that we think will be accepted by society; thus, society’s whims are pulling the strings, which in this case would be our actions. By working towards something that isn’t truly what we are passionate about, we are unable to enjoy the journey because we just want to get it done and hear the applause, but if we are acting because we are enamored with our subject, our career, or our pursuit, we savor the moments along the way, and if we make it to the end, the applause is simply icing on the cake.

3. Learn to say no – when we take on too much, we reduce our effectiveness and the quality of work that goes into each project. By saying no respectfully, we make sure that what we do keep on our list of goals will be given our full attention and best efforts.

4. Let go of the multi-task approach – similar to No. 3, when we reduce our focus, we are more likely to not do our best, even if we are genuinely trying to do our best. Remember quality over quantity at all times.

5. Give others and yourself room to wiggle – a perfectionist can be difficult to live with, work with and have a relationship with. While often in work, it is more acceptable and often yields more productive results, in our personal lives, it may not be as conducive to healthy, supportive and loving relationships. While we should always have boundaries, standards and respect ourselves, we need to also allow others to make mistakes and not be perfect the way we feel they should be.  Most importantly, we need to allow ourselves this wiggle room as well because we too will make mistakes.

6. Understand that failure is a lesson to become a better version of yourself – when we see the struggles, stumbles and roadblocks as an opportunity to grow and yield even better outcomes than we may have at first imagined, they become much more easy to weather.

Training yourself to not be a perfectionist is not easy, but when you realize that by choosing you can still have high standards and instead will actually improve the quality of your life, I hope, like myself, you will see the value in trying to change your ways. After all, I believe we all have amazing talents that are meant to be shared with others and the world, but if we can’t enjoy the journey because we are beating ourselves up along the way, as well as those around us who love us, what’s the point?

So today, try to be aware of how you attack your goals along the way to achieving success.  Are you a perfectionist and acting out of fear, or are you simply trying to do your very best, follow your life’s passion and savoring every minute? I do hope it is the latter.  Have a wonderful Monday.

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21 thoughts on “Perfectionist vs. High Achiever – The Difference

  1. So true.. Although I’d say I’m still more of a perfectionist as I’m not a high achiever at all things, but neither am I a perfectionist at all things. So maybe it’s moot. 😉 xoxo A-

  2. Perfectly stated. No pun intended. I agree with everything written here. The desire to be perfect is a dreadful shroud to wear. Always striving to have more, do more, decorate lavishly, dress to the 9’s, because one is fearful that not doing so will somehow diminish one. My best friend, born within 2 days of me, in the same hospital, lives with this burden. For awhile, so did I. My shrink asked me in a session, “what would happen if you only did HALF of that?” I thought, “Nothing, because no one would know it was HALF except for me.” That sentence changed my life.

  3. Hi – could you please cite your source(s) for this very interesting post. I would be interested in reading the original article/book! Many thanks.

    1. In all honesty, as someone who has long been a perfectionist, I am continually reading and perusing articles on the web and reading books to get to the bottom of perfectionism and how to make it work for me instead of allowing it to be a hindrance. Once I came to realize that I was primarily acting out of fear, I wanted to confirm my conclusion which I did in many different articles, but to name them – off the top of my head, I don’t know unfortunately.

  4. Not so many people call my attention… especially people I don’t know personally but today I have to say:
    I truly love your blog.

    Keep writing and giving us good reasons to think, relax and mostly to become better everyday.

    Thank you for being a “friend” and I wish you all the luck in the world*


  5. So funny – just 5 minutes ago I had one of my “perfectionist moments” and now…! These are the words I truly needed right know. Thank you.

  6. I have printed this out and now have it mounted above my desk in my office. I have struggled with “perfectionism”–and its ability to rob your precious moments from your daily living–my whole life. I am fine with setting professional boundaries, but the whole “not able to enjoy the journey” is really resonating with me, now that I have two small children. I want to enjoy their laughter, silliness, and smiles each day without noticing the laundry basket across the room needing folding, or that when we’re playing outside, I’m distracted by all the yardwork I need to do…This will really help me to slow DOWN, thank you!

  7. I printed this out as well. I will re-read this when I find myself procrastinating because I’m afraid of making a mistake:)Thank you for the inspiration!!!


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