Excellence, Not Perfection

This is one concept I have struggled to grasp myself for a long time. I thought striving for perfection, which by itself is more like an asymptote, is something that makes us perform better. However, over the years when I started following this excellence versus perfection related discussion through numerous articles and videos, I slowly realized my own misinterpretation of perfection – I probably meant quest for excellence, but (mis)attributed it as quest for perfection. Perhaps, I am also a recovering perfectionist. 😛

Let me elaborate this with few short videos, articles and an excellent illustration form a presentation by Joseph Hudson, though his entire presentation is unrelated to my article here.

Distinguishing Between Excellence & Perfection

This 1-minute video by Terri Cole explains the distinction quite succinctly.

From what I understand, this is the gist of distinction between the two –

Perfection is more about the end-results, whereas excellence is more about the process itself. Additionally, one may not have control over the end-results, the process however can always be improved and largely, under our own control.

Moreover, the motivation for perfection is rather extrinsic, whereas the excellence motivation is intrinsic.

However, one must remember that there is a thin line between perfectionism and excellence-quest, and it is rather tricky to interpret, decipher the essence of the statement when it apparently talks about either of these. One may use the word perfection while intending excellence, and vice versa.

For example, consider this excerpt from Richard Bach’s book Illusions –

“I’m not sure I want to be perfect and finished. Talk about boredom.”
“Look up at the sky,” he said, and it was such a quick subject-change that I looked at the sky. There was some broken cirrus, way up high, the first bit of moonlight silvering the edges.
“Pretty sky,” I said.
“It is a perfect sky?”
“Well, it’s always a perfect sky, Don.”
“Are you telling me that even though it’s changing every second, the sky is always a perfect sky?”
“Gee, I’m smart. Yes!”
“And the sea is always a perfect sea, and it’s always changing, too,” he said. “If perfection is stagnation, then heaven is a swamp!”
“Perfect and all the time changing. Yeah, I’ll buy that.”

~ From Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach

What do you think Bach is referring to when he mentions perfect here? You might enjoy reading this book if you want to understand the context better.

On the other hand, consider this quote by legendary JRD Tata –

“If you want excellence, you must aim at perfection. It has its drawbacks but being finicky is essential.”

~ J. R. D. Tata

You know what Mr. Tata means when it is followed by being finicky. I think many of us have seen that part in our own experiences of perfectionism.

The Perfectionism Trap

Here is one short talk ‘Perfectionism holds us back, here is why’ by former professional athlete Charly Haversat – who not only discusses her own personal experiences, but also talks about cultural obsession about being perfect and correlates this with cases like Volkswagen emission scandal. It’s worth listening to her eight-minute long talk where she discusses this with respect to kids’ games, and some of prevalent practices, implicit norms in the work culture – though she speaks about it from American perspective, I think that corporate work culture is rather omnipresent now.

There are numerous other videos available that discuss why perfectionism hurts more than it helps.  In yet another similar talk When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough by Dr. Martin M. Antony, who is ex-president of the Canadian Psychological Association, explains how being perfectionist can often bring praise for the demonstrated abilities, but being constantly anxious about details can hold you back and keep you from reaching your full potential. Dr. Antony also has a book written by the same name that delves deeper in this topic.  While we are discussing perfectionism, here is one nice video The Perfectionist Trap by The School Of Life that talks about our aspirations and illusions about achieving perfect success in our own careers.

If you’d like a story woven with real-life cases studies, here is one I’d definitely recommend from Tom Peters: The Dark Side of the Pursuit of Perfection, here is how he concludes his column.

In short, reduce to zero the odds of nothing going wrong and you’ll also reduce to zero the odds of anything interesting happening.

~ Tom Peters

The Pursuit Of Excellence

The excellence is about focusing and improving the process – whatever it is to achieve the desired result or goal. The paradigm shift is about believing that once we continue excelling and improving at what we do well, the results would get better and better.

Kaizen (改善) is the Japanese word for ‘improvement’, and it is a commonly known term in management and business parlance – a term for continuous improvement. I think it sums up pursuit of excellence quite well – rather than aiming for a fixed end-goal of perfection, we keep bettering what we are good at, essentially striving for excellence.

I found this absolutely brilliant illustration form a presentation by Joseph Hudson which explains the Perfection Versus Excellence paradigm aptly. As you can see, perfection is probably an imaginary fixed point somewhere and excellence is accepting the current reality working towards continuous improvement with vision.

Striving for excellence by Joseph Hudson

The end-goal or result in case of the pursuit of excellence is more like a by-product, the work or performance itself becomes enjoyable for its own sake. Who knows, one might even surpass perceived perfect goal in this pursuit. For example, nine-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt improved upon his second 100 m world record of 9.69 with 9.58 seconds in 2009 – there wasn’t a perfect, fixed number here, he continued to excel, bettering himself.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, author of The Gifts Of Imperfection (highly recommended book) and a research professor at the University of Houston Brené Brown clarifies this point quite well as she relates perfectionism with shame (her research subject of 16+ years) when she says – Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield. I think her short video is a perfect, err… I mean, an excellent way to conclude this article. 🙂


About the featured image:

The featured image for this article is a free wallpaper from QuoteFancy and it features quote by H. Jackson Brown Jr. with the photo credited to Daniel Nanescu. I am using this image here with gratitude.