Three weeks ago I wrote a column about dealing with war anxiety. I interviewed my family (what else is new?) and then wrote about my brother Mike's worries about life insurance.

Then this guy, Paul, started sending emails to me: “Who is your source on that insurance stuff in your column?”

Paul's emails kept coming. He called four insurance companies and then sent another email to me. He told me my brother gave me bad information.

So I forwarded the email to my brother. And he said, “Paul is right. You misquoted me.”

I am not a detail person. I associate details with perfectionism and I think perfectionism is a disease that undermines everyone who has it. Mike thinks I am being extreme. So when he gave me the bad news, he didn't say it like, “You misquoted me, I'm sorry for you that you made an error.” He said it like, “You misquoted me, and finally you got in trouble for not paying attention to the details. Hooray, hooray, justice has been served.”

My disdain for details started when I looked around at all the people who are disappointed with their lives. For the most part, these are people who wish they had done something that they did not do for fear of failure. In the worst cases, people have lists and lists of things they did not do because of fear of failure. Then I saw a bumper sticker that said, “What would you do if failure were not an option?”

When I went through my own list of what I would do, I decided that if I stopped worrying about failure, I'd be able to do a lot more. So I started focusing on just getting stuff done, instead of getting it done perfectly. Details fell to the wayside.

I also noticed that once I stopped worrying about doing something perfectly, I didn't have nearly as much reason for procrastination. It's easy to start something if you tell yourself that getting it done 70% perfect (as opposed to 100%) is okay. Believe it or not, in most cases, 70% perfect is okay for what we do.

Getting rid of perfectionism and procrastination has served me well. I have explored all sorts of ways that I can find success. I have flourished in many types of businesses because I have not put off trying. And I can jump fearlessly from project to project finding those that spark my career.

But in the process, I think I lost too much respect for details. At some level, I know these attributes are important. For example, if you can't keep track of schedules, you can't get anything in on time. And if you can't keep track of expenditures, you can't stay within budget.

A happy career path requires a balance of fearlessness and attention to detail. And thanks to Paul's attention to detail (and patience with my snippy emails) I am going to recalibrate myself.

Don't get me wrong; I still despise perfectionism. At the end of life, people do not wish they had been more obsessive about perfectionism. They wish they had tried more things, taken more opportunities. But I don't want to limit my opportunities by being unreliable. So here's hoping that Paul never catches me being careless again, and that Mike will still let me quote him.

28 replies
  1. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    THANK YOU for saying that you are NOT a detail oriented person. I am so tired of seeing resume after resume (in resume/cover letter books) that say “detail oriented” and “attention to detail.” I don’t consider myself a detail person either, and I want to ask you, how can people like me use that as empowerment when “detail oriented” seems to be the norm in every cover letter and resume?

    * * * * * *

    Good question, Daniel. Here’s what I do when I see “detail oriented” in a job description. I ignore it. Because anyone who would need the skills I have — leading, managing, prioritizing, executing big unruly projects — probably does not need attention to detail from me. So I go to the interview and try to get the job without saying that I have good attention for details.


  2. Derek
    Derek says:

    Interesting and compelling article Penelope. I am going to lose my job in 2 1/2 weeks. I told my boss before she hired me that she needed a data specialist who could go in with a microscope and deal with the details, and I told her that wasn’t me. My prior successes had come from my strategic thinking, big picture vision, and ability to orchestrate change. She said that was what she wanted, the strategic big picture business manager… maybe what she wanted, not what she needed. Three years later, I’m still strategic rather than detail oriented and she has realized that it isn’t working. Ironically I just read in todays Yahoo Hotjobs advice section that “detail oriented” was one of the four key terms to have on your resume. Bothersome at best.

  3. Anshuman Singh
    Anshuman Singh says:

    OK .. After reading a few posts from you regarding this, and the respective comments, I just had to comment.

    Let me start out by saying, I believe I am not detail-oriented. I am an engineer, with an MBA, an ambition and a lot of energy. In fact, I used to have constant struggle with many detail-oriented engineers in my work, so I finally came with “SKIP THE DETAILS” red cards (like football .. umm .. soccer .. red-cards) and passed it around in my office, so that people who went into too much detail can be stopped as politely as possible.

    That said, there is a difference in beign detail-oriented, and being plain careless and lackadaisical. Your blunder (gasp, yes, blunder) on the insurance stuff _is_ carelessness. Using a laser leveler is detail-oriented. A visibly crooked frame on the wall is carelessness. People who work at NASA cannot afford to not be detail-oriented _when it comes to their work_. When it comes to their clothes, or sandwich – sure, they’d wear mismatched socks.

    Point is, One needs to make their own judgement about when to be detail-oriented. That’s where maturity and intellect comes into play. When you’re doing something for the first time, sure – go ahead and “just do it” – if a failure is not going to harm people. If you are doing it for the tenth time, you better pay attention to details, because otherwise you’d never improve and get better.

    So the idea is not to berate “detail-orientation” or the lack of it (which I have referred to as “having broad perspective” in my career. It’s to have the _correct_ perspective – whether that needs to be a high-level view or detail-oriented, depends on the context.

    * * * * * * *

    This is a great comment. Thanks. You remind me that I have relied on detail-oriented people many times in my life. And thank goodness people have different skills because that makes for better teams.

    Also, you make a great point that the way to get better at doing something rquires a lot of repetition with a complete focus on the details. Reminds me of how I learned to jump serve in volleyball by dissecting the jump serve into fifteen discreet motions, and perfecting each one by serving 100 balls a day.


    • Allison
      Allison says:

      Some people can painlessly look at something for details, and the most important ones will still go by unseen! At that point, it is not carelessness, it is a skill that they do not possess. I think anyone can be detail-oriented, but it depends on what their personalities can focus on!

      For example, I am an interior designer who is incredibly passionate and somewhat knowledgeable in the field, but flawed in creating construction documents, product specifications, etc. I have tried countless times to scour a plan for noteworthy details, and will miss 75% of them.

      I can, however, look at a billing process and make it more efficient within minutes of reviewing it. I can convert measurements instantly. I can learn a computer program in a day. And I can sketch like mad.

      What I am trying to say is, we each need to find a job with the right *kind* of details to attend to. If a project/task requires detail work outside of your skill set, ask someone for help!

  4. William Bond
    William Bond says:

    Interesting. I know of a couple cases where the people in charge were not detailed oriented. We lost 2 GPS satellites and 2 space shuttles but what the heck. Those people didn’t “sweat the details”. I just don’t have enough money to send flowers to all the people that will be dead because some moran didn’t “sweat the details”! O, yes I also know of a company that adapted your “don’t sweat the details”. They went from number one to number three.
    Love your advice…IF I AM SELLING SHORT!!!

  5. Darren
    Darren says:

    “I associate details with perfectionism and I think perfectionism is a disease that undermines everyone who has it.”

    I’m sorry, but this is inexcusably sloppy thinking from someone who purports to be qualified to offer career advice (to perfectionists, no less!) You need to show that you grasp the difference between attention to detail and perfectionism if you want to write intelligently on this subject.

    Granted, “perfectionism” as distinct from attention to detail is a real condition, and as a person who suffers from it I think some of your insights have value. (They’d have even more value without your smug and unsympathetic tone…. something tells me you’re still angry at the sixth grade teacher who corrected your spelling.)

    Many jobs *need* to be done 99% perfectly. In my experience, 70% is very, very much the exception, not the rule. And it is not unhealthy to want to perform quality work… some people actually take pride in getting the details right, and I doubt they’ll be lying on their deathbeds wishing they’d done everything as half-assed as they could get away with.

  6. Daniel
    Daniel says:


    You’re right on. I think I know what Penelope was getting at, but, if anything, I find myself wishing people were more attentive to details. I mean, think about it — inattention to detail is why your waiter gets your order wrong at Applebee’s, why drivers get in avoidable wrecks, why the email at your company is ungrammatical and barely readable. I was brought up to believe that the quality of your work reflects on you as a person, and I definitely have less respect for people who are constantly half-assing their work. I would modify Penelope’s statement to say that some jobs (like NASA) need to be 100% perfect, most only need to be 99% perfect, and if you’re an absolute beginner, you can get by with 75% perfect.

  7. Paula
    Paula says:

    “Detail oriented” is a common phrase on resumes, but it isn’t a common trait, and that’s a pity. For every big-picture, fast-action person, there needs to be at least one detail-oriented person to proofread their (sometimes brilliant) writing, remind them of their appointments, and tell them they have spinach on their teeth before they go to the press conference. Businesses, and indeed the world, need both types of people, and people who can switch from one mode to the other.

  8. Shannon
    Shannon says:

    I just want to say how excited I am to read an article that mirrors my own thoughts on perfectionism. In my extreme detail oriented days, no one could beat me on perfectionism. I was also terrified of screwing up, and developed an eating disorder.

    I’ve stopped having to be right about everything, I’ve stopped being an awesome speller, and I’m fixing to stop working in a business that lives and dies by quarter inches (construction). It’s completely contrary to my personality, and the perfectionism/forcing myself into details was killing me.

    And to Anshuman, if you are an engineer (especially with an MBA), you might not think of yourself as a detail-oriented person, but I guarantee you are. The people you’re comparing yourself to are probably OCD level detail oriented. I work with people that I’m positive there’s medication that could make them easier to communicate with.

    Anyway, great post.

  9. saad
    saad says:

    frequent visitor, first time posting. i’m really glad you note that 70% is okay IN MOST CASES. imagine receiving oral sex only 70% of the way to orgasm. awful, no?

  10. Irina I
    Irina I says:

    Penelope, I just went on a binge reading of your old posts and I just cannot not admit that you’re absolutely right here. I have been thinking about this a lot lately and looks like I’m going to have to actually sit down and process those thoughts (instead of surfing the Internet).

    Thank you for this one and the one that says that you have tosuck it up and do priority 1 list items and not priority 8, even thought they are so seductive in how easy they are.

  11. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I like your peice. I wonder how you are going to make sure you pay a little more attention? At work I am constantly being pulled up over ‘attention-to-detail’ (even though I see others – even the one doing the complaining – missing details left, right and centre). The feeling that I am somehow stupid – no matter how much I try to list the things I actually do right – is a constant worry to me which makes paying attention even harder.

    Are daily Sudoku and cross-words the only answer?

    thanks for your thoughts.

    • Allison
      Allison says:

      I ROCK at Sudoku. Doesn’t help my career one bit :)

      I have finally figured out how to be okay with my lack of detail-orientedness. I found a job which appreciates my own unique focus. Like I said earlier – I can be super detailed when the subject applies to my talents!

  12. Andrea Warren
    Andrea Warren says:

    The comment above give new meaning to the phrase: devil is in the details. The balance between fear of failure and perfection is in direct relationship to the position you hold. I would not want to deal with a pyrotechnical, surgeon, or a theater stage manager that was not detailed- oriented for the simple reason that live are at stake. Here’s to giving thanks to perfectionists, detailed-oriented people who have the stressful jobs that require a skill-set of perfection. For the rest of us, done is better than perfect.

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  1. Brazen Careerist says:

    Balance fearlessness with attention to detail

    Three weeks ago I wrote a column about dealing with war anxiety. I interviewed my family (what else is new?) and then wrote about my brother Mike's worries about life insurance. Then this guy, Paul, started sending emails to me:…

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