Shift your priorities. Revaluate what’s most important. I value the ability to pursue passion projects and expand into other stimulating areas of law. By delegating and not micromanaging, I’m building a team of successors who feel challenged, stimulated, appreciated, and excited about the future. They want to “own” the business — figuratively and literally — and that’s freeing for me.
Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Danger.
Deborah Danger is an attorney and Managing Member of DangerLaw, LLC, Newton, Mass., which focuses on estate planning, probate, family law and more. She practices a different kind of perfectionism — making herself flawlessly dispensable. That orientation enables her to grow DangerLaw and prepare her team of attorneys to someday succeed her.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Chelmsford, Mass., in the “typical American family.” My brother and I attended public school and though our childhood was very traditional, I wasn’t.
I often found myself in trouble because I focused on outcomes rather than processes. For example, at school, rather than do the assigned reading before a quiz, I’d just look for the answers to anticipated questions, write them down, and remember them.
In third grade, two friends and I hid in the broom closet while everyone else headed outside for recess. Once the classroom was empty, we took the teacher’s box of gold star stickers out of her desk and applied them to her bulletin board. Why?
The teacher doled out individual stars as rewards for clean hands and we wanted to gain access to the pretty stars more quickly and didn’t understand why we needed to wait.
While sometimes I caused my parents angst, at work, that creative mindset is valuable. If you’re hemmed in by perfectionism, you lose the freedom to explore new ways to achieve objectives and make discoveries.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Maureen Dowd said: “The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settle for.”
I came across it very early in my career and it has informed my approach toward negotiating and goal setting ever since.
It even drove me to become an attorney. Law is my second career. I chose it after my same-sex partner lost her battle with breast cancer. We were grateful that her doctors honored our relationship throughout her treatment, even though we had no legal standing to each other. As an estate planning attorney I honor her by working to ensure that other unmarried couples have documents that give them rights to care for each other without having to “settle for less” and rely on favors and compromises.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The book that had the greatest impact on me was Call it Sleep by Henry Roth. How confusing the protagonist found each of the situations he was in and societal cues that they engendered resonated with me. He and I had to reconcile everything! I completely related to the harsh and inconsistent world he had to navigate, often without the assistance of friends or family. I felt similarly while traveling through my childhood.
This feeling of breathlessness carried over to my adulthood and primed me to be an entrepreneur. Now I embrace the thrill of persevering, overcoming confusion and finding my way to who I and my team are.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three I would point to are:
- Loyalty — I am grateful that whenever I call people for help and guidance, they consistently provide insights. I do the same for them. Being thoughtful and making time for their concerns means I get the same back.
- Generosity — Giving, whether through encouragement, referrals, or ideas. It’s a pleasure to help others accomplish goals and doing so usually leads to good things coming my way, too. Being stingy with advice and resources is exhausting and self-defeating.
- Empathy — Leadership is walking in my co-worker’s shoes. Acknowledging their needs is my most important responsibility. Not understanding their priorities means they do not feel heard or understood. Making them feel confident and safe results in them taking risks and achieving results.
This was especially important during the pandemic. There were so many stressful last-minute estate planning and divorce issues that were thrust on us during COVID. The team was available to me and clients almost 24 hours a day. In return, I required that everyone schedule four hours of weekly work time just for them to spend time watching TV, walking a dog, sleeping or indulging in silence. Encouraging self-care, permitted each of us to recharge and be there more fully for each other and our clients.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?
Perfectionists are focused on their own standards, and less attuned to the needs and perceptions of others. They assume what’s important to them is equally important to colleagues and clients.
This adds stress, and distractions. For example, letting a client know we need to extend a delivery date for a project is usually fine with them because they value communication over timelines. Perfectionists may focus on deadlines rather than the client. Clients may value periodic check-ins much more than a finished project done two days sooner.
The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
Being a perfectionist about what’s in a client’s best interest, is a positive.
I want to be razor sharp about giving clients the right environment and amount of time to construct and review an estate plan that honors their loved ones, reflects their values, and protects their assets.
If they want to talk with their doctors before completing a healthcare proxy or have multiple conversations with their adult children before signing, they should have that freedom so that they end up with an estate plan that’s perfect for them.
What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?
The negative aspects are wasted time, resources and energy.
When I first graduated from law school, I had no perspective as to what I was supposed to know. I hung out my shingle with no prior experience. When clients asked complicated questions, I spent hours researching their answers, without charge. I figured that I should be able to provide the perfect answer. Had I been more realistic, I wouldn’t have expended so much “free” time trying to be perfect in a situation where perfection was unobtainable and for which a client would have happily paid. I was not fair to me or the client. I’ve since identified better uses of my time, leading to much greater fulfilment for me and my clients.
From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?
1) Lack of knowledge: When I’m not sure what is correct or appropriate, I get bogged down in details rather than focusing on delivering value.
2) Insecurity: As a fledging attorney, I took a pro bono case from an organization that serves indigent women. Due to improper screening, my new divorce client had MILLIONS of dollars in assets. Her wealthy husband prevented her access to their financial information. She applied to the program indicating that she had no assets…rather than no information. Upon accessing her financial information, I was ill-prepared to deal with its magnitude. I wasted hours delving into the minutiae of how to handle her case rather than confidently overcoming my focus on perfectionism and informing the organization that she was not qualified to participate.
There are advantages and disadvantages to being a perfectionist. There’s satisfaction from overcoming obstacles but I have to carefully choose which problems are worth obsessing over.
Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.
1. Shift your priorities. Revaluate what’s most important. I value the ability to pursue passion projects and expand into other stimulating areas of law. By delegating and not micromanaging, I’m building a team of successors who feel challenged, stimulated, appreciated, and excited about the future. They want to “own” the business — figuratively and literally — and that’s freeing for me.
2. Think of work as dessert. If I kept all of the frosting and just gave my team the cake, there’d be no incentive for them to improve their knowledge and skills or be engaged by opportunities to grow. We consistently broaden our range of services by ensuring everyone enjoys the whole tasty cake of challenge.
3. Confront the fear of mistakes. I do this by going on vacation! The first time I took that leap, I returned to a list of unanticipated issues for which we needed a plan. After filling these gaps, I went on another vacation and returned to a much shorter list of challenges. Now my vacations are anticipated as a tactic by which to strengthen our processes and build our trust of each other.
4. Set a benchmark other than perfection. For example, shoot for a certain number of words for an article, minutes to do a project, number of attempts spent completing a task, etc. Or share the task with others whose skills complement yours, and participate in activities that are fun or to which you can add value.
5. Get a coach or some kind of accountability partner to help you celebrate accomplishments so you don’t just compensate for weaknesses. Building on strengths is way more motivating.
Realistic self-assessment tools are helpful, too. They encourage me to try new things, acknowledge what I do well, and prevent me from feeling that I’m just not doing enough. They also encourage curiosity and anticipation.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Invest in culture. Work is all about the people. Make people feel safe, appreciated, and valuable, and your culture will be healthy and your business will flourish.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens! I’d love to have lunch with Wade Pfau, Ph.D. CFA. I’ve been a fan of his for years and have thoroughly enjoyed watching his radical but mathematically supported theories on retirement planning become the new standard industry deliverable.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!