The Pain of Perfectionism
Why chasing perfection is inhumane and mastery and excellence are what we should be aiming for

Last week I received a note from a team member who was distraught over committing what she felt was an egregious mistake – a typo in an email campaign that occurred after not just one or two proofreads, but three! She was beside herself and her note was filled with profuse apologies and, in my view, hemorrhaging with an all too familiar flavor of suffering.

As her words landed I found myself cringing a bit. Although I deeply admire her boundless kindness as well as the ability to own her mistakes and apologize so swiftly, I recognized myself in the language of self-flagellation. That was a cringe-worthy part. Sure, she made a mistake, but the level of blame she was heaping onto herself was way out of proportion with the *sin* she had committed.

As if making an honest mistake is a punishable sin to begin with!

So I hit Reply All and sent the following message to the entire team:

“ … having been in a similar state of self-flagellation myself many times and knowing the scorching feeling of it, I want to thank you for showing me the wasted energy of perfectionism and the ways in which it simply doesn’t serve any of us in the present moment.

Perfectionism is nothing more than a harsh mythology based on wishful thinking, not reality. I think we all should aim for excellence, which is something very different. Excellence knows that mistakes are a key element on the journey toward becoming better people. As a matter of fact, mistakes are a key component of our learning. Mastery simply can’t happen without mistakes. In some ways, our mistakes should be treasured!

The perfect piano player–the one whose focus is to hit all the notes exactly the way they are written in the composer’s score–may seem to play perfectly, but her performance will be far from masterful. The beauty of the most excellent performances is in their expression and emotion. And the many years of discipline and practice that goes into becoming a master? They’re riddled with “mistakes!” As a matter of fact, it’s often the beautiful mistakes that uncover a new way of thinking, which can be a life-transforming innovation!

True masters – the masters worth paying attention to and giving your time and energy toward following – are the people who know they have yet to arrive, who are always learning, who are humble. Masters are fully human. To be human is to be imperfect.

So please, let’s all aim for excellence and cease the quest for perfection, which is a form of inhumanity, which leads to nothing but disappointment and suffering.


PS. Since composing this message I’m taking steps to remove the word perfect from my vocabulary. Good-bye, perfect, hello humanity. 

Image credit: Portrait of painter Marc Chagall by Zbigniew Kresowaty – which, in my estimation is a masterpiece.

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