Much has been said about the candidate who thinks they've invented a free pass to the most difficult interview question ("What's your biggest weakness?") by saying, "I'm a perfectionist."
I genuinely believe that perfectionism can be a weakness, because it's my weakness. And I'll use myself as a sacrificial example to all you doubters out there. Cliché answers are only cliché if they remain at surface-level. It’s our role as interviewee to impart meaning to these adjectives.
I get it from my mom. Once, when I was young, she joined a friend of hers who was doing set design for the local children’s theater. She came home agitated, looking defeated.
“Have fun painting, Mom?”
“No,” she sighed. “They told me nobody sees the brush strokes from the audience, but I couldn't loosen up my painting style. All I got done was a small corner of Dorothy’s house. I don’t think they’ll invite me back.”
At the time, it seemed strange to me that she couldn't overcome that need for uniform paint strokes. Later, I recognized the trait in myself. My paint-strokes were uniform columns of A's and the various accolades I collected: valedictorian, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa. But if a project necessitated speediness or high output, I couldn't deliver, stuck as I was slaving over one tiny corner of the whole. (Or, I would deliver, but at the expense of my sanity).
When I taught English in China for a year, I marveled that one of my fellow teachers had time to write a novel "on the side,” given his full-time teaching schedule. I was incredulous. How was it done? “Don’t stress too much over teaching,” he said. “It’s not like it’s going to affect your career path.” (Few of us were pursuing careers in education).
I agreed with him, in theory. But for some reason, my lesson plans had to be brilliant.
I worked myself into a frenzy making beautiful and interactive PowerPoints (did my students care about design principles? No!), writing clever songs for each unit, and inventing new games for every class period. I followed a self-imposed rule: if I used someone else's idea, I was a failure. As it turned out, this wasn't a sound educational method for ESL. Students of foreign languages (especially young children) crave routine, and I was depriving them of that routine by constantly springing "innovation" on them.
None of this came naturally to me -- it took hours of painful planning, revisions, and re-revisions. I practically had to write scripts for my classes because I was so scared to falter. The role was supposed to be exploratory, but if a class didn't go well, I went into self-blame mode.
Meanwhile, my friend was well-loved by his students and able to nurture his passion for writing. He wasn't sloppy, but he wasn't paralyzed by the prospect of a mistake, either. These kinds of people move outside their comfort zone more often. They pay attention to what "really matters," instead of assigning "top priority" status to everything. Later, I started realizing that the compulsion to be impressive in all things isn't admirable -- it's unhealthy, as psychologists have found.
My point is not that you shouldn't hire perfectionists, obviously, but that every trait belongs on a sliding scale. We should all try to understand that each positive contains some negative, and each negative some positive. Nothing is black and white. (Except maybe the difference between an A and a B grade ...) So instead of prescribing our vocabulary, listen to the supporting details. Like most weaknesses revealed in front of a potential employer, there are ways to overcome them, and that's the spiel employers want to hear. Right?