If you’re asked to make a diorama, don’t build a teepee

Nobody really knows when I’m having a bad day.

This is by design.

I’m the kind of person who thrives on the “wow factor” effect. My biggest wins revolve around streamlining operations as smoothly as possible, while blowing all of the dirt and glitches under the rug. I like it when people say the following about me: “I don’t know how she does it. It feels like things just happen by magic”

Kind of like a trip to Disney World. Just take one stroll through Main Street, USA in the Magic Kingdom, and you can’t deny that it’s a perfectionist’s dream come true. Smiles all around, not a piece of trash in sight, happy children, mouse-eared ice cream, and a full day jam-packed with anticipation and wonder.

But even in Disney World, there’s always a lot that happens behind the scenes — or “backstage” as they call it. Tons of planning, prep, stress, and fatigue goes into The Disney Experience. They hire people who hire people who think about every minuscule detail, down to things like: If trash ever appears in the same place on the ground three times, put a trash can there.

Of course you never see any of that. Because if you ever did see Cinderella with a cigarette or Mickey Mouse without his head on, the magic would be lost. Children’s dreams are dashed, and you’re immediately jolted back to an imperfect, slightly disorderly reality.

I like making the magic happen. I always have.

This started young. Back in the 6th Grade, during a course on Native American culture and traditions, we were assigned a project to build a diorama of a Native American dwelling. On the day the projects were due, one by one, students of Mr. Childress’ history class boarded their school buses, carefully guarding their shoebox creations.

But not me. I had already been inside the school for over an hour. My dad drove me in early, and we traipsed up the stairs and into the classroom carrying armfuls of sticks, cloth, and furs.

By the time all of the other students arrived, they entered to an unexpected sight: A life-sized teepee had already been installed in the room, built and constructed by yours truly.

I realize now how obnoxious it must have been to be my classmate.

That said, those closest to me seemed to reap the fringe benefits of this somewhat frenetic energy. For instance, in high school, when my brother wanted to win a Halloween contest for the most money donated to UNICEF, I decided that it wouldn’t be good enough for him to simply carry the UNICEF donation box.

Instead, I built him a life-sized replica to wear as his costume. (He won in a landslide.)

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According to my brother, at the time (my senior year), I apparently decided to pull a cram session and make this for him because I was “practicing staying up late at night to get ready for all-nighters in college.”

This type of thing continued to be a trend in my schoolwork.

To give you a gist of what I mean, here’s a short list of school projects I turned in over the years.

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Clearly I missed my calling as a guerrilla marketing campaign designer.

Each of these “stunts” gave me the exact desired outcome I had been intending. Shock. Awe. Amazement. (Sometimes tinged with confusion.)

And without fail, my teachers reacted in a very similar way.

I got pretty used to seeing something like this on top of my assignments:

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Which, obviously, is exactly what I was going for.

But here’s the problem: Getting feedback like this for basically all of your academic life changes the baseline dramatically in a way that can be pretty problematic as an adult.

There is no good. There is no great. There is only “above and beyond.”

This is not realistic, nor practical. And in the end, it actually can become a bit of a crutch.

Looking back, I kind of wish at least a couple of my teachers would have written something a little more like this:

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Here’s why: In the real world, there IS such a thing as “too much.”

Too much time, too much money, too many allocated resources, too many competing priorities. Chances are, if we learn this formative (but important) lesson earlier on in our lives, we won’t be quite as prone to things like “prioritization paralysis” or “feature creep” or “overcommitting” as adults in the business world.

In business, limits do exist. Boundaries are important. Fixed scope matters.

In other words: If you’re asked for a diorama, you can’t deliver a teepee.

But here’s the other reason why this unrealistic expectation-setting is bad news. Over time, it inadvertently breeds a habit of craving perfection and seeking out opportunities to receive that three-star, 100% feedback in whatever you do.

In other words, you learn to never cut yourself a break. Meaning you can never have a bad day.

So let’s do ourselves (and our direct reports and our students and anyone else you work with) a favor: Stop awarding 100%’s. Stop yourself from using the phrase “perfect” in responses (no matter how casual). And stop allowing for people with that “over the top” tendency (myself included) to indulge their guilty pleasure.

Instead, let’s start providing positive feedback by rewarding those who portray an alternative set of behaviors:

With a few small tweaks to our corporate culture of continuous feedback, I have a feeling that there will be plenty of opportunities to slowly (and surely) change the way we all think and manage expectations for ourselves and our teams.

But in the meantime, if you happen to be working on a project that demands the installation of a life-sized teepee, you know who to call.

Written by

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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