Striving for Excellence, Not Perfection - Part One: What is the difference?

This is Part One in a series on Excellence vs. Perfection. It is one of my favourite topics, so please join me in this journey!

Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection". Read that sentence over a few times. It is kind of confusing, isn't it? When I first heard this phrase, I struggled. What is the difference between the two? I mean, we have all heard 'practice makes perfect'. But then, we also hear 'no one is perfect'. So, what do we make of this?

Let's talk about perfectionism for a bit. We get really hung up on the definition of perfectionism - when honestly, all of us have some component of perfectionistic tendencies. Some of us insist that our days follow strict routines, while others want tasks to be done a certain way. Some individuals suffer from moments or times when they need to engage in routines and gestures, otherwise they will endure severe distress (which can be a signal of obsessive-compulsive disorder - and this will NOT be discussed here).

But then, we hear that if we keep practicing habits, we will be 'perfect'. This follows from the sheer fact that the more you do something - such as practice playing an instrument, change a habit, etc. - your brain and body will get used to it. You will become better at that habit/skill. But, here is where the fallacy lays - will you ever be 'perfect'?

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What IS perfect? We hear so often that we have to have the perfect body, the perfect life, the perfect job, the perfect relationship, etc. I will argue, as many have, that perfect does not exist. Perfection is relative. Perfection means you are comparing yourself to another (and likely unrealistic) standard. Which truly only sets us up for failure. Because once you 'reach' perfectionism, either of two things happen:

1) You reach perfection (whatever that means to you) and you think: hey, if I could do that, it must have not been enough. No, I have to do MORE. (and this sets you up to being too hard on yourself...setting unrealistic goals, and then not achieving them because they are too hard. Which reinforces the negative cycle of you feeling bad about yourself)


2) You never reach 'perfection', and you think that you are a failure. You feel bad about yourself and your abilities. do we approach this conundrum? Do we never set goals, and never try to get things done because perfect doesn't exist? Or, do we just set super easy standards for ourselves, and never push ourselves to achieve our potentials?

The answer is actually easier than what we may think. The balance is to aim for excellence. Not perfection. What is the difference? Excellence doesn't compare. Excellence does not demand unrealistic standards. If perfect is 100%, which is not achievable or sustainable, excellence may be 80% to 90%.

Am I promoting laziness? No. Am I suggesting that you not complete your work or assignments on time? No. Am I saying that you should never stick to your goals because perfect and success are impossible? No. What I am really saying is that flexibility is important here. For example, you ought to finish your assignment on time. But reading it over five times is a bit too much. Making a goal to exercise each day is wonderful, but unrealistic - so why not aim to work-out five times a week instead? Wanting to please your family and friends 100% of the time is not doable, so why not try your best, admit your mistakes, and work on finding solutions?

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The main difference between excellence and perfection can also be seen through the lens of self-compassion. While perfection demands us to be hard on ourselves, excellence takes an approach of self-compassion. No one is 'perfect'. We are all learners, and we all make mistakes. This is the beauty and challenge of life. If perfection was attainable, life would be boring. We would never have anything to learn, or anything to strive to achieve. We would never see that we capable of struggling, rumbling, falling...and getting back up. Although these dark moments are tough, they teach us wonderful lessons that are critical for our growth and health. 

And so, rather than being hard on ourselves and feeling 'not enough', we take the view of a compassionate friend. 'I may not have achieved 100% today, but I did 90% and that is enough. If I truly did not put in all my effort, what can I do to change this? If I did put it in all my effort, and still did not get the results I was hoping for, was my expectation too unrealistic? Or is there something that I need to change? What did I do really well today? How can I thank myself for this?'

I challenge you to pick one habit or goal in your life and think about it: are you striving for excellence or perfection? What would excellence look like? How can you change your view and approach of this aspect of your life to be more compassionate, more realistic, and more sustainable? How would this change your life?

See you in part two, where we will discuss more about why excellence - and not perfection - is more sustainable.

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