Two months into the run of the Broadway musical Hamilton in San Francisco, with the show at the peak of its success across America, I suffered a heart attack. I was the show’s music director—responsible for conducting and maintaining the production in a musical capacity—and I experienced the attack on my walk home after a performance. I was 43 years old.
At first, the stress of the job was the chosen culprit, but tests would later prove that years of dubious lifestyle choices associated with my maladaptive perfectionism were the real villain. Endless nights of debauchery, designed to quiet my bullying inner critic and low self-esteem, caused my right coronary artery to become 90% blocked. Two stents were placed to get me on the road to recovery, and sessions with a psychologist were prescribed.
Understanding that I urgently needed to find some balance with my perfectionistic demands for myself and others at Hamilton, my psychologist introduced me to self-compassion, a proven technique that moderates the link between perfectionism and depression and helps perfectionists manage their traits in healthier ways.
It proved to be a game changer. Here’s what I learned:
It’s not the demand for perfection that creates results.
Prior to my heart attack, my baseline expectation was complete perfection from myself and my colleagues. I didn’t care that each show was three hours long with 20,520 words sung at a dizzying pace of 144 words per minute. This was Hamilton, a show so important it was well on its way to becoming a permanent fixture in American popular culture. It had to be right. It had to be exact. It had to be perfect!
Of course, I’d always secretly understood that the chances of 35 cast members and 10 musicians getting absolutely everything right every night were slim. But that didn’t stop me from setting almost unreachable standards meant to inspire the very best from every performer, no matter the stress this approach may have caused.
This had always been my preferred method for creating the high standards I was respected for worldwide. I assumed it was the demand for perfection that raised everyone’s game. But my introduction to self-compassion inspired me to consider healthier choices—and challenge my beliefs and methods.
I soon realized that my moral leadership style was actually playing the leading role in achieving near-perfect results, not the demand for perfection itself. It was the collective call to be the best we could be at all times that inspired our greatness. This, coupled with the pride of being involved in such an important and beautiful musical, would help us create the product expected of us.
The experience is as important as the result.
For as long as I can remember, my focus has always been on the result of a task, not on the experience of getting to it. While this approach had its advantages, the journey to the result was often an unhappy and stressful one as I paid little attention to self-care.
Self-compassion prompted me to look at things differently, to consider whether focusing on the experience of achieving the result could not only produce the same outcome but also make it better by bringing some joy into the process. The results were startling.
Instead of relying on the successful completion of each song to feed my perfectionistic hunger, I began to lean on the global experience of each piece to denote success. I would analyze how a particular musical phrase felt, what the picture of the stage in front of me looked like in relation to the lyric, and what the orchestra sounded like as a unit. If I felt completely satisfied with the overall experience, I’d have achieved “perfection.”
As it turned out, the “perfect performance” happened more often using this new method! I became more relaxed during performances, which, in turn, helped me perform better and lead more effectively. I became more forgiving of mistakes because I could appreciate the journey to them, and I had a better understanding of why mistakes happened, which proved to be fantastic knowledge in my quest to prevent them.
I’ve since adopted this global approach in nearly every aspect of my work, encouraging those who work for me to do the same. The results are regularly better, and the experience is infinitely more enjoyable. It’s a win-win!
Understanding others’ expectations creates balance.
Middle management roles can be tricky for perfectionists, particularly in performance-based industries where superiors demand perfection (or as close to it as possible) on a daily basis. Finding a healthy balance in our work can be almost impossible unless we begin to break down and understand the expectations of ourselves, those we lead, and those we work for.
Some months after my heart attack, I drew up a list of these expectations. Predictably, the results showed that I felt perfection was the standard demanded by everyone. Yet, as before, my work on self-compassion encouraged me to question my conclusions.
I soon discovered that the only person really expecting perfection was me.
When considering my superiors, I realized that perfection may have been the set standard in each performance, but my boss was realistic enough to know that achieving it is quite different from demanding it. Providing I was completely dedicated to making the show the best it could possibly be each night, implementing his instructions as diligently as possible, he would be happy.
Similarly, I realized that the people I was leading didn’t demand the same level of perfection from me as I expected from myself. They all seemed to be better connected with the common humanity element of self-compassion: making mistakes is an accepted part of life.
These discoveries led me to understand that a better balance at work would only be achieved if I offered myself the same kindness and forgiveness I gave freely to others. This takes time, and I still struggle with it today, but I’m getting there!
These are all great examples of how self-compassion helped me get on a healthier road with my perfectionism and still achieve great results as a leader. Self-compassion’s power is immense. If you embrace it in the workplace and inspire your employees to do the same, you and your business will thrive!
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JULIAN REEVE is a former music director of the Broadway musical Hamilton turned perfectionism contributor, speaker, and author of Captain Perfection & the Secret of Self-Compassion: A Self-Help Book for the Young Perfectionist. Visit www.julianreeve.com for more information on self-compassion and other perfectionism solutions.
How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.