Pressure To Be Perfect
It started out as being a fun game. Spotting typo’s on menus. My friends would laugh with me at some of the amusing mistakes. But my tutting at unnecessary double-spacing soon got on their nerves.
I couldn’t help it. Nine months in to my training contract at a Magic Circle Firm and the mantra “attention to detail” followed me wherever I went, including when I had left the office. Perpetual proof-reading had turned me into a pedant.
I guess it all started when my supervisor gave me some advice at the start of my first seat. “The way to keep me happy,” he intoned with a stern look on his face, “Is to ensure that the staple is at a right angle to the top edge in the top left corner of the paper. Stapling at an angle just will not do.” I added this requirement to the growing list of requirements of how to be the ‘Perfect Lawyer’.
And perfection was what I was aiming for. My work was examined in minute detail by my supervisors. I longed for the day when a two-line email was returned to me without corrections. As my responsibility grew, so did the pressure to get everything just right. Triple checking became the norm. I would start early and finish late to ensure attainment of the standards that I thought signified success.
Looking back, the pressure to be perfect warped my perspective and eroded my confidence; suggestions from senior lawyers became criticisms; minor errors became major mishaps in my head.
Fortunately, I learnt a valuable lesson towards the end of my training contract. It was Monday morning and I had worked all weekend with a senior lawyer (let’s call him Michael) on a financing deal, which had to launch by 2pm that afternoon. Lack of sleep started to impact my work. Errors started creeping in. Michael spotted my growing irritation. “You are doing a great job.” he assured me. “Let’s look at the big picture. We have documented the important detail. We have a limited amount of time to get the rest into shape. And that will be good enough. Just do the best you can.”
Nearly 20 years later, I can still picture that moment. Experience had taught Michael that getting stuff done for your client sometimes means that everything might not be perfect. He had reminded me to focus on what really matters, namely, understanding and correctly documenting the commercial intention of the deal.
Now, don’t get me wrong, when I worked as an in-house lawyer years later, sloppy drafting, incorrect numbering and frequent spelling errors did more to undermine my confidence in the content than anything else. And we can all think of cases where minutiae have mattered; where cases have been won or lost on single words and phrases. But, my point is this: Michael’s wise words prompted me to give myself permission to make mistakes and to redirect my attention to the detail that really mattered.
People have an amazing ability to beat ourselves up. We treat ourselves like a lodger rather than a friend. We criticise, complain and outright attack ourselves in a way that we would never do to another person. We construct a model of the ideal person we wish we were and then beat ourselves up for failing to match up to those impossible requirements.
My experience is that lawyers have a particular problem with this type of self-abuse, which often stems from that self-imposed pressure to be perfect. Unhelpful training and unnecessary client pressure can compound the situation.
So, my advice is focus on what really matters. Understand where that pressure to be perfect comes from and give yourself permission to make mistakes. Your health and relationships depend on it.