What is better than perfection?
This is not an idle question. It may have an answer.
So many of us imagine that we can and should constantly strive for perfection in our workaday lives, but no one ever seems to achieve it. Why not? I will leave it to philosophers and theologians of all stripes to formulate an answer and to conceptualize perfection as a metaphysical construct. My focus is on the common, everyday application of perfection, and I would pose this alternative question: in the face of sure failure, of a guarantee that you will fall far short of perfection, why try?
And yet, vast numbers of us continue to toil toward perfection, and I get its appeal. Workaday perfection is a great motivator. Since you cannot possibly achieve perfection, then its pursuit keeps you constantly moving upward toward achievement and even overachievement, which is admirable, right? Perfectionism would logically keep us sharp and on the right and righteous path. Since perfection is precise and unforgiving, perfectionism is a precise and unforgiving approach to life. Perfectionism gives you the impetus to eliminate errors in yourself and in others so that you can move closer to your goal, perfection.
I heard the following saga many years ago, from an administrator at a small university. We shall call her Mary. Mary was named the chief administrator of her new academic unit, and, having moved straight from faculty with no clear rules and few experiences to rely on, she looked for a role model to emulate. She began to closely watch her fellow administrators, who all had considerably more administrative experience than she did.
One in particular drew Mary's attention. He appeared to have a strong sense of self and always seemed to be on the ball due, perhaps, to his long experience in similar positions at that small university. We shall call him John. Mary imagined that, inexperienced as she was, she suffered from imposter syndrome more than most, but John seemed to have no such misgivings. He was always in control and constantly and decisively fixing, poking, and recalibrating every action and every outcome. No 'i' was left undotted. No 't' was left uncrossed. Each move, no matter how slight, was calculated and precise, from the way he drank his coffee to where he sat during a meeting. Nothing was left to chance.
Mary would watch as he burst into every meeting precisely on time to start because he had been working on something critical until the last second. He would leave the meeting the same way. Others might linger to chit-chat or share thoughts, but he would zip right by them on his way to his next crisis. He was a problem-solver to be sure, and he was set on perfecting his practice as an administrator. It was an impressive display, and Mary was duly impressed. In fact, she started emulating John. Not in everything of course. Her coffee, she insists, did not have to be just so, and she has a habit of sitting where she wants. But that restive busyness, that sense that there was always something that needed doing because there was no other way to perfect it, affected her profoundly. Soon, Mary too found herself rushing everywhere, from crucial event to crucial event, and she knew she had become impressive as well. People noticed and would comment on how hard she was working and how meticulous she had become. She dazzled even herself with her own significance and seeming willingness to rise to any occasion. You could always be sure to see Mary flying about campus with barely time to say hello to colleagues and friends. Students, she admits, were out of the question.
Just as John was prone to do, Mary started identifying crises everywhere, large or small. She regularly announced as she rushed out of meetings that she had to go "put out a fire." These crises were real, as real as those her fellow administrator, John, faced every moment. Administrating was hard. She observed John laboring constantly to synchronize every action, always with that elusive perfection just on the horizon line. He produced reports and studies and plans that were epic in their scope and epically captured on prodigious spreadsheets. Mary was impressed and inspired.
John was not altogether well, though. All his work and all his perfectionism took a physical and mental toll. He became gaunt and irritable. Mary realized soon enough that while he had mastered every minute detail, he had no sense of the larger cause they were charged with pursuing. He measured himself in exacting terms and measured everyone around him the same way, but he could not see that his faculty loathed him and loathed their jobs, which they were never able to do well enough for him. Because he was a control freak, John took no risks. He was a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy. He habitually avoided all controversies and made no waves no matter how intolerable the circumstances, particularly when they were intolerable only to faculty or students. He permitted no dissent, not even the slightest criticism, and expected maximum effort from everyone, including himself, at all times. The better faculty members with the means left, and their fresh replacements largely seemed cut from the same cloth as John. They soon too joined in his relentless drive for perfection.
Students began to noticeably suffer along with faculty. The goal for John and most of his faculty became less about educating all students and more about educating the best students. The ones who did not make their unforgiving cut but who decided to stay on at the university usually ended up in one of the majors in Mary's academic unit. Mary began to discern that many of them were much happier now and began to excel, but John and some of his faculty were openly contemptuous of them. They suggested that Mary's academic unit was not as rigorous as theirs because of all their "sub-standard students." His unit had the best students. After all, you cannot achieve perfection as an educator if the students are not all nearly perfect already. In education, we call this process "diamonds in, diamonds out."
Eventually all this perfection took a toll on Mary. Something snapped in her. One day, she was giving a presentation, and, at the end of her part, she apologized for having to leave abruptly with her usual excuse that she had "to put out a fire." The folks in the meeting nodded admiringly as she bolted out the door to her office on the other side of campus She was pleased to note how obviously awed they were by the difficulty of her job and her seriousness of purpose. As she walked across campus, she began to think how cool she was, rushing toward that next fire. It was almost heroic. She knew too that her day would be filled with extinguishing such fires, but she was sure to surmount every mounting crisis and to move that much closer to perfection.
That was when that something inside her snapped. Somewhere between that meeting and her office Mary suddenly broke character and, for whatever reason, questioned herself. "What exactly is this fire I am rushing toward? What is this next crisis in an endless series of crises?"
The answer: Mary had to make a phone call.
That was it. A phone call. And not even a very important one. It was just a blip on her busy calendar, but she had built it up in her own mind so that it would seem as urgent as urgent could be—a fire that, while now small, would soon blaze and threaten to destroy everything she was building and any chance she had at achieving perfection. She must decisively snuff it. With her new realization, that her fire was not even a spark, that the next crisis was not even a minor issue, she burst out laughing. It was mortifying to recognize how much of a spectacle she had been making of herself. Sure, people were amazed by Mary's superhuman focus, and she too was pleased with herself. But it was all a fraud, a show as much for her as for the world. She had spent most of her energy and time spinning an illusion rather than focusing on what was important and the mission of the university.
Mary then started watching her erstwhile role model through a new lens. What John trumpeted as his noble pursuit of perfection, Mary now perceived as mostly meaningless busywork. Those vast, incomprehensible spreadsheets that he produced and all the toil and planning they represented would rarely see any fruition. No one would really bother to read them even if they could. The mammoth, meaningless reports he constantly churned out somehow failed to acknowledge that his academic unit was failing in its most fundamental duty: educating students. In fact, the shedding of "inadequate" students was the tell-tale sign of his own inadequacy, and the fact that those students were finding a home and success in Mary's academic unit as well as success in their future endeavors was even more damning. Mary had discovered that it was John's very pursuit of perfection that augmented his academic unit's failings.
In perfecting trifling minutia, he had lost sight of anything meaningful. He and his favorite faculty kept doing the same things over and over while expecting different results. In short, Mary came to understand through him that relentless perfectionism is a debilitating illness or even a mania. Yes, his faculty touted the ability to secure a few prestigious grants, but those contributed little to the overall budget and did even less to enhance that small institution's mission, which was to focus on student learning. To Mary's mind now, perfectionism was a gilded toilet with plumbing problems.
And that is part of the problem. Perfectionism is deception—deception of the self and others. It stands to reason that if perfection is an impossible goal, then the self-criticism that attends its relentless pursuit and perpetual disappointment must finally take a toll on one's integrity. It becomes the easier choice to look down on others in order to bolster the ever-failing self, and doing so requires self-aggrandizement and judgmentalism. Perfectionism breeds unwarranted arrogance. In short, perfectionism establishes a classic inferiority complex.
After her revelation, Mary formulated an ethos to offset the mad pursuit of perfection. First, she tweaked her vocabulary and urged those around her to do the same. There were no fires to put out, ever. And, while Mary did not totally ban the word "crisis," she treated it cynically. If she or anyone else used it carelessly, they would rigorously critique its appropriateness, starting with simple questions like, "What crisis?" "Isn't this really just a problem, and doesn't every problem have a solution?" Mary and her team found, quickly, that there are few actual actual academic crises. They exist, but they are pretty exotic. They also found that many of the actions they had deemed urgent were utterly unimportant and often not worth even doing. They had confused "urgency," which has to do with time limits, and "importance," which has to do with substance. They practiced applying the Eisenhower Matrix as a matter of course and practiced forgiving themselves when unimportant things just did not get done. No one else much noticed, by the way.
Meanwhile, John, the pure perfectionist, continued to propel himself and his academic unit relentlessly with little thought of what it was they were really achieving. He was so caught up in his daily toil and his time was so limited that from time to time, his faculty members would come to Mary to get advice that should have come from him. He was too busy, they told her. More than once, students from John's academic unit came to Mary for help and support when he was unavailable. John continued to shed faculty, who moved on to healthier environments. In contrast, personnel turnover in Mary's academic unit was near zero, and student retention—the principal measure of year-to-year student success—was quite high.
There was nothing magical about all this. Mary and her team just started eschewing perfectionism and replaced it with a more rational philosophy, one I heartily endorse: the assertion that there is always a better way. Notice that the emphasis is on the way (process) not the goal (perfection). They asked themselves basic questions before they started any project: Why and so what? Fortified with this approach, they were able to focus on what was important while constantly assessing themselves and adjusting as needed. Oh, and if someone forgot to dot an 'i,' there was usually someone else to catch it. And if they did not catch it, which was rare, no student was ever hurt, no effort failed. Sometimes Mary's boss laced into her for minor errors, but that only reflected poorly on him, as he too had started emulating John's obsession with perfectionism and mastery of the trivial. Mary also noticed that she was putting far fewer hours into her job and yet was able to accomplish all that was required. She also was achieving goals that were most important to her faculty and students. She had become, in fact, more productive.
I wish I could say that John saw her and her team as a good model. Instead, he continued to look down on them as he puffed up his own mediocrity. He worked and worked, but had little more to show than she did, and his outcomes were sometimes far worse. To be sure, he has since met with more career success, but the ripples of misery that emanate from him and threaten to drown all around him are only overtopped by the absolute anguish that his carping words and deteriorating physical condition betray. He has achieved everything he has ever wanted and more, but he is disconsolate. Meanwhile, Mary, has fallen short of her original professional ambitions, but she has settled into a contentedness that suits her better than meaningless accomplishments embellished by vainglorious titles.
Perfectionism is the philosophy of unexamined failure. It blinds us to what is most important. I agree with Mary. There is always a better way. And the pursuit of that ethos, rather than blind perfectionism, often leads to success along the path we least suspect.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.