The Virtues and Tribulations of Being Anal

People don’t usually list conscientiousness as a job requirement. They’ll say you need to be “experienced,” “qualified,” “skilled,” “a team player,” “a good communicator,” “results-oriented,” “a problem solver,” “energetic,” “friendly,” “mature,” “reliable,” “responsible,” “passionate,” “entrepreneurial,” “flexible,” “a positive thinker,” or “trustworthy.” I know, because I just lifted those words straight from newspaper classifieds.

Mostly, they don’t say you have to be the type of person that makes sure that whatever they’re working on, however small, is done right. Conscientiousness doesn’t seem to be in high demand, at least not explicitly.

For sure, being anal is sometimes a problem. Trust me — I’m probably one of the most anal people you’ll ever meet, at least about some things. And I have all the personality flaws that go along with it.

Perfectionism is the devil

For one thing, extreme conscientiousness is just perfectionism. And while that may seem like a clever backhanded compliment to give yourself on a resume, the truth is that perfectionism is a big problem.

More often than not, perfectionists end up wasting time making the wrong things perfect. They expend effort beautifying thoughts, words, and numbers that they never use. They optimize prematurely. That wastes their time and the time of the people they’re working with, and the results are often not that great anyway.

Meanwhile, non-perfectionists expose their imperfect stuff to other people as soon as they can. They get feedback, fix it, and expose it again. And again. They outsource the perfecting to other people and the right things get done.

The principle of the thing

But to a perfectionist, that’s a hard sell. Because to them, it isn’t just about getting the best result. It’s the principle of the thing. Publicizing incomplete or incorrect work can feel like laziness. That feels like a personal failure. A lot of things can feel like personal failures to perfectionists.

I know all about that. I’ll spend hours looking for a 50¢ pen, because losing things feels like a personal failure. I’ll speed to avoid being late, because tardiness feels like a personal failure. I’ll re-read this post 10 times before publishing it because typos seem like personal failures.

Demanding too much of yourself can also lead you to demand too much of others. That makes overly anal people hard to work with sometimes.

I can feel myself being a pain in the ass. I have an idea in my mind, about how things should be, and I want other people to do them my way. The right way. That can annoy the people you’re working with. It can also lead to inferior solutions when your way isn’t, in fact, the right way.

But the larger point is that most of the things you want done your way just don’t matter. In the end, you’re sweating the kind of stuff that won’t move the needle. It takes a lot of effort for a perfectionist to let the small things go — and almost everything is small.

The language of conscientiousness

But being anal isn’t all bad. In fact, one of the things I like most about myself is how anal I am. It’s also one of the things I like most in work colleagues.

Conscientious people don’t rest until something is done right. They put their all into it, physically and mentally. That’s hard to find. As long as you can make sure they’re working on the right things, you want them on your team.

But what I like more is that they tend to speak a different language from other people. Their conscientious behaviour stems from conscientious thinking. That makes their language is more precise.

If you ask a normal person if the keys are on the dresser, they’re liable to say “yes,” but an anal person may say, “Well, that’s where I left them,” because they don’t know for sure that they’re still there. If you ask a normal person if the spreadsheet is up-to-date they’ll say “yes,” but an anal person might tell you what changes they made to it, because their idea of what needed to be done may be different from yours. If you ask a normal person if something is a fact they’ll say “yes,” but an anal person may cite their sources, because they know that even reliable ones are sometimes wrong.

I love people like that. When they tell me a task is done, I don’t have to ask a bunch of follow-up questions. When they tell me that option 1 is best, I know it’s because they’ve thoroughly investigated the others. When they tell me my sandwich will take 7 minutes to prepare, I know it’s because they’ve timed it. Even when they say they don’t know, I’m grateful they didn’t just pick one possible answer and fake confidence, like so many people do. I can stop worrying about some things, because they’ve already worried about them.

Speaking the same language also makes it easier for me to work with anal people. I tend to ask a lot of questions — ususally because I’m trying to figure out exactly what the other person means— but I’ve noticed that that can be off-putting. Some people get defensive, because they think I’m trying to say they’re stupid. So I often have to preface what I say with disarming language. But when you’re trying to solve a problem, tiptoeing around it with flowery words can get in the way.

But anal people love questions, because it gives them companionship in their thinking. They love to sweat the details with other people, without worrying too much about the words. Nobody gets offended by being asked to elaborate on or defend what they say. They know it’s not personal. Everybody is just trying to think through this thing thoroughly.

Like every personality trait, being anal is both good and bad. It’s definitely something you need to control, or it starts controlling you. It can be annoying, when it gets out of hand. But, aside from intelligence, I’ll take conscientiousness over pretty much anything else in someone I work with.

Barbadian wannabe startup founder