Perfection vs. ExcellenceSep 11, 2023
We hear the phrase all the time: “I want to make it as perfect as I can.” But there are two issues with that statement that can lead to disappointment and disillusion. To understand them, we have to look at the difference between perfection and excellence.
The Problem with Perfection
The first and most simple problem is that perfection is a deontological proposition. There are no conditions for “perfect” - it either is or it isn’t. “As perfect as possible” is like “kinda pregnant.” You is, or you ain’t.
You may dismiss this as a semantic quibble (“Everybody knows I don’t mean literally perfect…”). That’s fine, unless you actually expect perfection. Some people do, and that leads us to Problem Number Two.
Nothing is perfect.
The “perfect wedding” is an oxymoron. The “perfect weekend” never is. A “perfect gentleman” is destined for a fall from grace and a perfect circle isn’t. The Earth isn’t perfectly round and nothing is perfectly smooth.
But out of this universe of imperfection, there is only one thing we need to consider here: you. You aren’t perfect, regardless of what your mom or significant others (before they became your ex-significant others) may have told you.
For most of you, this is (hopefully) not new news. But think about where this leaves us. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, trying our imperfect best to create something that is doomed to be, well…imperfect.
Does that mean we should just give up?
Perfection vs. Excellence
The problem is linguistic laziness. When we say “perfect,” we really mean “excellent.”
Try these on: “I want to plan an excellent wedding.” “This is going to be an excellent song.” “That was an excellent weekend.” “A Perfect Circle is an excellent band (although a geometric impossibility).”
With that one simple shift in lexicology, despair becomes inspiration.
Perfection is the never-attainable existential carrot. You can’t reach it, no matter how hard you try. Frustration and depression are the unavoidable consequences of a literal quest for perfection.
But excellence! There, my friends, lies the most worthy of goals. If you create things, you can (and should!) pursue excellence. An excellent video or course or landing page or submarine or skyscraper; all are within your grasp. An excellent environment in which to raise a child is among the noblest of goals.
Like perfection, excellence can be a slippery concept. The more excellent you are at your craft, the further away the bar moves for what is “excellent.” As you get better, your expectations rise and what was excellent yesterday is today merely “good.”
But unlike perfection, the quest for excellence motivates and inspires us. We can achieve excellence. And the harder we try, the better we - and our creations - become.
The Most Excellent Excellence
So we can replace an unhealthy expectation of perfection (of ourselves and others) with an inspiring pursuit of excellence.
What could be better?
If you follow my work, you may see this one coming, but I will belabor the point anyway, because it bears belaboring. There is one quest for excellence that beats all the others, now and over the course of a lifetime:
Excellence in pursuit of purpose.
Purpose is the thing that will enable you to, “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” Purpose will sustain you through the most difficult of times and rescue you from the most Stygian of existential angst. A sense of purpose will imbue you with near indefatigable resilience in the most dire of situations. When Victor Frankl wrote about his ability to survive the Nazi concentration camps, he called his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” for a reason.
Strive for excellence in your life. You only have one and you are the only one who has yours. Why (on Earth) would you settle for anything less?
Pursue excellence as you start to figure out your purpose. Keep excellence “top of mind” as you try on that sense of purpose. And maintain your quest for excellence as you (inevitably) refine - or change altogether - your idea of your life’s purpose.
Of the many quotes and clichés that relate to excellence, my favorite is, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” If you are spending your precious, irretrievable time on a task - any task - do it mindfully, with intention and excellence. Settle for nothing less, and abandon your expectations of perfection.
In the idiom of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (an excellent movie, IMO), I wish you a most excellent journey on your path to purpose.
Be excellent to each other!
As always, I welcome your thoughts. You can reach me through the comments section on my Substack or Medium accounts or the blog section on my website. If you have found value in this article, come follow my Instagram and Twitter accounts. Subscribe to my River of Creation podcast - The Podcast for Creators, coming this November, wherever you download your podcasts.
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