Pursue Excellence, Avoid Perfectionism

When we speak of the pursuit of excellence we always have some “gold standard” in mind like

  • A perfect safety record
  • A house that that is featured in a design magazine
  • A parent who provides age appropriate guidance but gets out of the way of the child’s development

When we aim for the best in any domain, how does that differ from perfectionism?

In distinguishing the pursuit of excellence from perfectionism we have to,

  1. View failure as a part of the learning curve

We can chose to view falling short of our goals as an unmitigated disaster. For instance, our perfectionistic inner critic may beat us up for an occasional parenting shortfall. By contrast, we can choose to view a parenting lapse as part of our learning experience. Such an attitude gives us the freedom to try out new things with the knowledge that we could fail in our initial attempts. This makes mastery a journey and not just a destination. As someone once said, “increase your success by doubling your failures.”

  1. Know when to back off and regroup when progress is frustrated

I love what Maya Angelou said, “If there is pain in the path ahead of you and pain in the path behind you, change paths” This act of finding a detour in the face of obstacles is not quitting but giving yourself other options. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is a compulsive attitude of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” It keeps driving ahead even though the behavior may be counter productive.

  1. Aim for the highest standards

 We have a deep inner knowing that we are capable of more than we can even imagine for ourselves. This mental and physical driver comes from both a healthy sense of our potential as well as knowledge of our learning capability. When we reach that mark, metrics from outside of ourselves, e.g. from our industry or peers, let us know that we did a great job. Perfectionism, on the other hand, comes from a faulty internalized measurement system, a deficit mentality that believes that don’t have it in us to achieve our goals. It has nothing to do with a healthy sense of our limitations or even our real capabilities. It is a phantom metric.

  1. Distinguish rational judgment and being judgmental

Perfectionists are highly judgmental. They frown on others who dare to think, dress, socialize, and live differently from them. Such negative judging comes from a deep sense of inadequacy. By contrast, people who pursue excellence embrace diversity and see it as strengthening their own view of the world. Their assessment of differences is based on external standards and not some internal emotional struggle. As a result it is easier for the to “live and let live.”

So by all means pursue excellence and work on getting over perfectionism. But don’t confuse the one with the other.


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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