The Pursuit of Excellence—Not Perfection

Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”  ~Confucius, Analects

Stina Persson, Perfectly Flawed

Perfection is an illusion. The notion that we can attain something or achieve some task or talent that is without a flaw is misleading.

Our culture speaks of perfection in sports with phrases such as the perfect game in baseball, where a pitcher gives up no runs, no hits, no walks, and his team makes no errors—in essence, none of the opposing team’s players even reach first base during a so-called perfect game. Legendary football coach Don Shula once led his Miami Dolphin football team to what has often been called the perfect season, going 17-0 on their way to winning a world championship.

In the workplace, we often hear people speak of perfection in terms of a project or a product; “This product must be perfect before we release it to the public!” “This report must be flawless because it’s going to be seen by the executive team!”

Are the things we refer to as perfect, actually perfect? Did the pitcher who pitched the perfect game make absolutely no mistakes? Did he hit his spot on every single pitch? Did Shula’s football team have a flawless season, committing no turnovers and allowing no opponent to score on them throughout the course of the perfect season? And how is the report that is being sent out to the executive team deemed as flawless? It has no spelling or grammatical errors? It has no bad or risky ideas? The content is full of explicit details on how the company can make easy millions?

What we often call perfection is really not perfection at all. If we continue to pursue what we call perfection in our personal and professional lives, we stand to miss one of the most valuable lessons in life—the ability to overcome our mistakes.

Scott Peck, in his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled, begins the book with this simple truth, “Life is difficult.” Life, both at home and at work is full of challenges, setbacks, frustrations, and disappointments. It is everything but perfect!

Does this truth mean that we should just accept our fate and live a life of disappointment? Are we to settle for mediocrity or being content with the fact that we are imperfect and live in an imperfect world?

By no means! In fact, understanding that perfection is an illusion frees us to engage our flaws, to rise up to meet our daily challenges, to embrace our mistakes as lessons on how we can get better and how we can lead ourselves at a higher level—excelling beyond average to meet the demands of that voice deep down inside of us that cries out for goodness. This is the pursuit of excellence—not perfection. And excellence does not come easy. It is crafted over time and wrought with setbacks, and yes, many flaws. It is within the pursuit excellence, not perfection, that we find personal and collective greatness.

***Author’s Note: As an author at Why Lead Now, and a Co-author of Situational Self Leadership in Action, my passion is to encourage and inspire the individual contributors of organizations to pursue personal and professional excellence. Today’s next generation of leaders are full of energy and passion to make the world better—including the workplace. The articles found in this column will focus on Leading Yourself at a Higher Level, challenging us to be the best that we can be in our journey to a better place—personally, professionally, and collectively.

—Jason Diamond Arnold

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  • Comments (3)
    • schlomo henig
    • April 16th, 2010

    Thank You very much for this post, It really puts me in perspective on what life is all about. Thanks Again

    • Jenny
    • April 21st, 2010

    Great article. To do well in business, one must possess an analytical mind. This is helpful in identifying problems and potential solutions. Unfortunately, just as all strengths have their down sides, the analytical mind easily spots the imperfection and can tend to stay focused on it while the parts that were good diminish into the backgroud. It seems to me that whether one is in business, coaching kids, or just being a parent, spouse and friend (like me), the trick is to be able to continue to appreciate and value the good we see as well as identify problems and gently help bring about improvement without requiring perfection. We would all do well to apply your message to ourselves as well as those around us.

  1. Thanks, Jenny. Great comments! I learned a lot about this philosophy of excellence through coaching youth baseball. It often gives them a sense of freedom in many ways. We push them to be their best, but at the same time they are not worried about making mistakes, because they know they aren’t going to get chewed out. It seems like a bit of a paradox at first–be your best, but its ok to make mistakes. But in a larger sense it frees our minds to, “just play the game.” Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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