The Perfectionist’s Guide to Setting Goals You Can Actually Achieve

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Melody Wilding26
In the real world, there are no gold stars for effort or report cards to gauge your progress. Yet, a common mistake is treating work like school. As CEO and author, Sallie Krawcheck points out:
Let’s not confuse what made us successful in school for what can make us successful in our careers.
While an honor roll mindset can translate into a drive to succeed that lands you deals and accolades, it can also easily lead to workaholism and burnout. The industriousness that served you well in school may now be what’s actually hindering your productivity and professional progress.
That’s because when you hold yourself to exacting standards — as many high-achievers do — you can get caught in the trap of perfectionism. The result? Feeling perpetually frustrated, stressed, unacknowledged, or like you never measure up.
Here’s some signs an Honor Student Hangover might be costing you:

1. You beat yourself up when you make a mistake.

For you, a goof is really hard for you to rebound from — even if it doesn’t have a larger effect on your career standing.
Perfectionists experience shame, as opposed to guilt, over screwing up. Shame says “I am bad” (which suggests a character flaw) whereas guilt says, “I did something wrong” (which suggests it’s in your control to fix or improve).

2. If something isn’t perfect, it’s not good enough.

You insist on dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” on every single task, or else it just doesn’t sit right with you. That tunnel vision can stunt your ability to make decisions and move forward.
Attention to detail is obviously an important skill that makes you successful (even if you’re not being graded on it anymore). But there’s a difference between excellent and perfect: The latter does not exist.

3. You push yourself to work harder — not necessarily smarter.

You’re never satisfied with yourself, most notably when you’re treating yourself to hard-earned deserved downtime, which you probably view as wasteful. This penchant to give your all to your career can come at the expense of your well-being, leaving you ripe for burnout.

4. You expect gold stars.

In her book The Happiness Project, happiness expert Gretchen Rubin talks about her frustration with not receiving metaphorical gold stars for adult achievement. If you feel expectant of and disappointed by not getting a pat on the back for your successes, you’re probably suffering from honor student hangover, too.
Here’s the thing: it’s great to have high standards, and even better to be able to actually hit them most of the time. But if you operate in your career constantly striving for A-pluses, the effort is not only futile, but also harmful. You’re going to drive yourself to burnout. And besides, it’s simply not possible. It’s not how the working world, well, works. Trying to achieve the same “Gifted and Talented” student status in your job is a dream destined to go unfulfilled.
Here’s how you can hold on to high standards, but keep perfectionism in check:

1. Face up to the ironic consequences.

Not only does having an honor student hangover from your adolescence into your adulthood drive you nuts with unrealistic expectations, it can actually erode your self-esteem and performance. If you’re constantly falling short of where you think you should be, you’re never going to feel good enough. Over the long term, that feeling of inadequacy can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: you’ll shirk new responsibilities, avoid taking risks, and otherwise stunt your professional growth all because of fear.

2. Consider multiple measures of success.

As a student, you were graded on academic performance alone. In real life, how you define success is much more within your control. In fact, research shows that chasing after external motivators like a prestigious title or bigger paycheck won’t make you happier. Pursuing meaningful work and deep relationships, on the hand, can result in authentic happiness.

3. Have some compassion for yourself.

Remove “I wish” and “I should” from your vocabulary. Only say things to yourself that you would say to your close friend. Cut yourself some slack. If you’ve had a life-long track record of achievement, carrying your honor student outlook into your professional life is something that probably happened naturally, and it’s not the easiest habit to shed.
Start to separate the parts of that mentality that are productive from the ones that no longer serve you. Then you can strive to continue succeeding without the weight of trying to reach an unreasonable bar.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious women stop doubting themselves so that they can reach their full potential. Her clients include managers at top companies like Google, IBM, Facebook, and Deloitte. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. Sign up for your free guide, The 3-Step Workday Reset at