Choose excellence over perfection


Do you have the ability to work in an “error-free environment”?

Believe it or not, that was a qualification in a job ad I saw a few years ago. Someone in that “error-free environment” was delusional about his ability to work without making mistakes.

And that’s the difference between excellence and perfection. Properly understood, perfectionism is not something to aspire to. Why? Because it is not attainable. We only have so much time and energy, and we cannot fully invest ourselves in every endeavor. We must be selective.

We only have the ability to go all out on a few things. If we relentlessly obsess about our job, then our health and family life have a good chance of being destroyed.

Even at work, we must prioritize. If we are a perfectionist about Project A, then Projects B, C, D and E will not receive as much attention. We cannot bring equal energy and attention to bear upon every single thing we do. And we shouldn’t. Every task is not of equal value to us, our boss or our customers.

In addition, life continually presses upon us with tensions that are not easily resolved. A few years ago I found a powerful illustration of time and priority management: the pentathlon. It features these eclectic events:

  • Pistol shooting
  • Fencing
  • Long-distance running
  • Equestrian show jumping
  • Swimming

If pentathletes develop amazing marksmanship skills, but neglect swimming, they can’t win. They may run an amazing 3200m, but if they can’t fence, they’ll lose.

This is an excellent metaphor for life with its mix of physical, spiritual, relational and mental demands. Neglect our health and we’ll lose our ability to do our job. Neglect our relationships and we’ll lose motivation to do our job. Neglect our jobs and we’ll lose our income and an opportunity to do much good. All of these things need our attention, all the time. We can’t focus on one to the exclusion of others without serious loss.

This is not an excuse for sloppiness. Ironically, perfectionists can be erratic and sloppy because they are not able to balance competing time demands. Their obsession on one task leads to the neglect of others. I know because I’m a recovering perfectionist. Elizabeth Grace Saunders sheds light on this:

“Saying something is complete doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved upon or elaborated in the future. It just means that I can submit it and move on to other work.”

Seth Godin has pointed out that “Saturday Night Live” can only be as good as it’s going to be by Saturday. A script writer may be able to add some zing to a skit by staying up all night and turning it in on Sunday. But that’s too late. Steve Jobs said the same thing in a different way: “Real artists ship.” In other words, they meet deadlines.

We may think, “I could have done better.” Well, that may be true. But at what price? To do better at Task A means to do worse at Task B. Is that OK? Tradeoffs must be made and we have to be honest about that.

Excellence is doing the very best we can with the time and resources we have, then being open to learn how we can improve in the future.

Are you ready to seek excellence? Or are you hung up on perfection?