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Excellence or Perfection?

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
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Is it better for you to aim for excellence or perfection? Before you answer, let’s examine the difference between the two notions.

Dictionaries define perfection as “the condition of being flawless; the most desirable state that can be imagined." Except in something simple, like an easy spelling test, perfection is difficult to envision - no less achieve. Contemplate the perfect discovery, the perfect life, the perfect career, the perfect spouse. Though you may have a general sense of what would be a magnum opus for you, setting your sights on “perfect” breeds disillusionment. Ask anyone, years later, who thought they found their “perfect” soul mate. Excellent perhaps, but not perfect!

Dictionaries define excellence as "possessing superior merit; remarkably good." This is easier to envision, more realistic to achieve. Striving for excellence helps you expand your thinking; who knows where your efforts will take you? Many highly successful people had no idea where they were headed; they just worked hard and followed the opportunities. In contrast, striving for perfection keeps you measuring your work against an abstract standard that’s often meaningful only in your own mind.

Many perfectionists were repeatedly told by their parents to "always do your best." Good notion, yet it’s often impractical. Given the limited time, energy, and resources of our busy lives, you simply can't do your absolute best with everything. Try to and you’ll find yourself low on energy, high on irritability. So, instead of demanding perfection with whatever you do, conjure up several ways to accomplish a task. Then narrow down the alternatives to the most pragmatic ones - given your time and resources. To help you decide how to approach a task, consider:

  • If a task isn't significant but still needs to be done, do it in a run-of-the-mill manner just to get it off your plate.
  • If a task is particularly meaningful to you or significant to your career or family, put extra effort into it.
  • If a task is interesting, important and imperative to you and your goals, then yes, do your best! Even then, strive for excellence rather than outright perfection.

No time like the present to make a change. Think about a task you’re facing. How are you planning to do it? Now evaluate your approach. Are you making the task bigger than it is? Can you do what you need to do without making it the best it could be? Will a “good enough” job suffice or do you need to make it a seminal achievement?

If you’re a hard-core perfectionist, you may be getting annoyed with me. Lower my standards!!! Are you kidding me? That’s what’s wrong with the world. Shoddy workmanship; slack willpower! Relax, I’m not advocating shoddiness. I’m advocating that you proceed calmly and rationally from the known facts: what needs to be done, your genuine interest in the task and your available time to devote to the task given the other responsibilities you have. No, you can’t do it all – so choose your priorities!

Oh, one other idea I have for perfectionists... Make one deliberate mistake each day. Whaaaat??? Are you kidding me? No, I’m not. There’s no better way to alter your protectionist tendencies than to practice being imperfect. Make a mistake; make it deliberately. Be 10 minutes late. Don’t make your bed. Leave a mess on your desk. Discover what it can teach you. By doing so, you're training yourself to cope graciously with blunders and bloopers. What's more, you learn what truly needs your precious attention and what you can overlook without any significant consequences.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ~ Albert Einstein

Copyright © 2019: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.

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