Q: Linda, stewardess, 23:
“I’m quite new to yachting, and in some ways it really suits me as I’m a massive perfectionist. However, I’m a lot slower than the other stewardesses as I need to get everything perfect – but the Chief Stew says I have to speed up if I want to keep my job. I was told that ‘attention to detail’ was one of the most important skills for a stewardess! It’s one of the reasons I thought I’d be great at the job, is she asking me to lower my standards? I’m really confused!!”
A: The Crew Coach:
What a great question! You’re so right, we do talk about perfectionism a lot in yachting and attention to detail (like, seriously minute detail) is very much appreciated. But there is a compromise to make between time and quality and you need to know when and where to call it, as meeting deadlines and getting everything done is equally important.
Your question is well timed, as there’s a lot of talk about perfectionism in professional circles right now; it’s becoming a hot topic as to whether it’s actually a positive trait, or a negative one. Of course, it can be both. But it’s clear that unchecked, unmanaged perfectionism is dangerous to your career… and it can definitely get you fired!
This may seem surprising to you, and perhaps to a lot of other people too. In yachting, we’re led to believe that obsessive attention to detail is the holy grail of character traits, prized above all others. And in job interviews, saying “I’m a perfectionist” has traditionally opened doors, not shut them. But the question is not whether or not to be a perfectionist, it’s knowing when to apply it and when to stop.
Let’s be clear. This is not about leaving grotty toilets or carelessly plonking streaky cutlery on a wrinkly tablecloth. Rather, this is about prioritising the use of your time to make sure you are not spending too much of it on things that aren’t immediately important. It’s about recognising that moment where you’re throwing time down the drain on something that nobody will ever notice, when your time could be better used doing something else.
Yachting follows a cycle and you need to learn to know where you are in that cycle in order to behave appropriately. I actually was fortunate to learn this lesson in my very first week of daywork on a large yacht in Antibes. I was left to ‘detail the laundry’ and I had no idea how much time this was meant to take. I finished the task quickly, thinking my speed would impress the Chief Stewardess – but she was horrified that I had not taken enough time over the job. What I learnt was that the most important factor is knowing how much time we should allocate a certain task, and then adapting the quality of the work to fit the time frame. Essentially you must do the best possible job you can, in the exact amount of time allotted for that task – but most importantly you must FINISH the job in that time, and not run over.
This means making judgement calls about what is and is not essential given the time frame and the time of year you are doing the job. For instance, you might think you’re doing vital work on a charter when you’re cleaning out dust from an air conditioning vent in the back of a cupboard, but if the other girls are waiting for you to finish the cabin so they can go on their break, it’s really inappropriate. Taking too long on tasks and fixating on tiny details impacts the daily schedule and damages the smooth running of the interior team. This is what your Chief Stew is talking about.
She knows the owners, she knows what standards the boat needs to run at, and above all, she knows what speed the stews need to work at to operate efficiently. And you’re out of sync. In your situation right now, your Chief doesn’t want you to be a perfectionist, she wants you to be effective. She wants you to harness that inner nitpicker, and only let her out again when it’s time to detail the boat during down-time. Your perfectionism in this case, is actually far from perfect.
The author of ‘Eat Pray Love’ and an expert on perfectionism, Elizabeth Gilbert, puts it best:
“The most evil trick about perfectionism… is that is disguises itself as a virtue. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. …perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I never will be good enough.’ …The drive for perfectionism is just a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is–if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart.”
While that may seem a bit harsh, it will help you to know there are two types of perfectionism, and one is much more positive than the other.
1.Maladaptive perfectionism is the unhelpful one. It’s when you waste lots of time doing pointless tasks, and your job performance actually suffers in the long run. Maladaptive perfectionists struggle to prioritise and will also often find their perfectionism spills over into all aspects of their lives- job, home, relationships and family, with high stress and other negative effects such as procrastination and inability to make decisions.
2.Adaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, get their perfectionism under control to succeed at their jobs (and just impress the socks off everyone in the process). Adaptive perfectionist rarely let their perfectionism in one field spill over to other areas of their lives, and enjoy much better self-confidence and success. Adaptive perfectionists learn how to prioritise, and step away when the task is done to a high, if not perfect, standard.
So, which do you want to be? Remember, imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time! I hope this helps – if it helped others as well let us know in the comments below!