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Strive for excellence – not perfection

"What are your weaknesses?" it’s a classic interview question that trips up many a candidate as they try to show their very best side.


But why are we all so determined to keep up a facade of perfection? Why do we feel hell-bent on pushing for better levels of performance and bigger achievements?

Because while our instincts might tell us to aim for perfect, there’s a strong chance that approach is hindering our progress.


The Perfection Trap

It’s something Thomas Curran talks about in his book The Perfection Trap.

It seems logical that the more effort you put in, the more chance of success. The more you strive for perfection, the more likely you are to achieve it.

But Curran highlights evidence to the contrary:

“A recent meta-analyses looked at the correlation between perfectionism and various measures of job performance, such as productivity and outputs…

Across ten studies the variance that the perfectionism measure containing self-orientated perfectionism shared with job performance was zero, nada, zilch. Seemingly self-orientated perfectionism has absolutely no link with success at work.”

Perfectionists suffer lots of pain, for no gain. So what’s going on here?

Curran shared a great analogy from Patrick Gaudreau, a psychologist studying perfectionism. 

Gaudreau likened perfectionists to ‘overfertilised crops’. Crops are at first responsive to fertiliser but become less and less responsive the more they grow. If you continue to add fertiliser, they will in the end wither and die.

As Curran puts it ‘human striving like the growth of crops, is not infinite… you can’t move forward without, at some point, reaching a threshold beyond which you end up wrecking yourself’.

Excellence v perfection

All of this is not to say high standards are bad. Aiming high brings personal development, and goal setting brings progress.

But set standards impossibly high and we’re destined for failure, frustration, and burnout.

All those late nights, skipped lunches, missed social connections catch up with us. And we see our productivity dip – while those seemingly putting less effort in appear to thrive.

How can we continue to shoot for progress but avoid burning out? Try shifting the target from perfection to excellence.

There are a few key differences between perfectionism and excellence:

  • Perfectionism is impossible standards, excellence is high standards we can reach.
  • For perfectionists a mistake is a failure, if you’re shooting for excellence you learn from them.
  • Perfectionists also struggle to adapt to shifting goals and expectations, but excellence comes from recognising when we need to change and adapt to external influences.
  • The focus of perfectionists is always on the end game, if you want to achieve excellence try to value the process and learn from the journey.

A healthy perspective on excellence

As Curran puts it, ‘People who strive for excellence know when high standards have been met and they can let things go without fear of doing them imperfectly.’

And they know that excellence isn’t perfection. That there is no such thing as healthy perfectionism, but there is strength in stepping back to acknowledge ‘enough’.

While it’s not always easy to acknowledge a job done well enough – especially when the stakes are high and the buck stops with you – it is key to keeping productivity up and the chance of burnout down.

The next time you consider just another hour, just one more draft, take a moment, remember there’s a good chance you’ve achieved excellent already.