I had a conversation with a friend a while back which sparked my interest in this subject. Our conversation turned into a disagreement. I was keen to point out that her incessant need to push her kids to the greatest heights of academic achievement despite the gruelling effects (financially, physically and mentally) it was having on her family was rather extreme and unhealthy. Her response was “I am all about excellence and I will not settle for less”. I could not help asking, is this perfectionism rather than excellence? So often I hear the word excellence used to justify actions and behaviours that could perhaps be deemed extreme, or “a bit much” or drastic. I know I have been guilty of citing excellence in this way myself, which usually leaves the opposing party with little or no room to challenge me. But is what we call excellence truly excellence? Or are we just fooling ourselves?
What Is Excellence?
The Oxford dictionary defines excellence as “the quality of being outstanding and or extremely good.” I like that this definition starts with the “quality of being”, which focuses first on the person than on the result gained. It has more to do with character than on achievement. It points to applying consistency and having a prevailing attitude which Colin Powell describes “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”
Therefore using Powell’s definition, it would follow that excellence is more about character building, discipline, and self-improvement. It makes sense to me that if I applied myself in this way that I would more than likely achieve desired results.
Perfectionism on the other hand is defined in medical terms as “the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness” (Merriam Webster)
Perfectionism is not in the slightest bit interested in the character or efforts. All it wants is results. It is highly critical and will accept nothing less, regardless of how much work has been put in.
A powerful differentiation between perfection and excellence was made by Michael J. Fox when he said “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”
Perfection has to do with fear, that I will only be good enough when I achieve the desired result. Sadly the result is usually so unrealistic and unattainable due to a critical and negative belief, and a deep lack of self-worth and acceptance. So much that unconsciously, the person has set themselves up to fail, which gives them even more reason not to accept themselves. With perfection there is no sense of nurturing, patting on the back, or letting yourself off the hook. Just a task master that keeps pushing and pushing to strive at all costs. Understandably, striving for perfection only produces more mistakes and failures.
Excellence encourages us to do our best but allows for the fact that we are humans with weaknesses. Hence, excellence is more nurturing and loving. A person who has an excellent spirit about them will be more kind to themselves even when they make mistakes or fail. When we love ourselves in this way and receive the same from others, we feel more empowered to do our best and achieve desired results. Perfectionism, on the other hand, can lead to torment and condemnation. A perfectionist has a strong internal critical voice that will push to get what it wants at all costs.
Signs of a perfectionist
- You are an all or nothing person. You hold a very black and white approach, there are no shades of grey or anything in between. You must do everything well or not do it at all.
- You do not tolerate mistakes in yourself or in others and are quick to call it out. Hence, you are quite hard on yourself.
- You are very particular about how you like things done, which makes it difficult to delegate or work with others. People view you as a task master and someone who is difficult to please.
- You spot errors, flaws and problems easily, as you have a critical eye for detail. Whilst this is a strength, it poses problems because you do not pay attention to the positives or areas that have gone well, only the negatives.
- You set extremely high standards, which are difficult to achieve, causing you stress, overwhelm and leaving you feeling like a failure.
- You focus heavily on the end-result, rather the process involved. You don’t stop to celebrate small wins or achievements.
- You spend a huge amount of time on your work to make it perfect. You will not let it go until it is perfect. You would rather be late than submit work that is below your standard, even if it meets the required standard. You sacrifice sleep, rest, relationships and others areas of your life to ensure you achieve your goal.
- You are prone to procrastination, because of the effort involved in ensuring that the work you produce is perfect. Which means that you regularly put off doing work, if you feel you are not ready or able to deliver top quality results.
- You experience depression and deep lows when you don’t achieve your goals.
- You always want more; success is a never-ending goal to attain, which constantly drives you, to the detriment of other things in your life.
If you can relate to all or most of the above signs, then it is likely you are a perfectionist. Do you often feel worn out, stressed and exhausted from constantly striving? Or depressed and demoralised from not trying because you know what it would involve to start?
Give Excellence a chance
Excellence welcomes your flaws and mistakes, as it allows you to explore and try things out, taking small steps. Excellence places emphasis on enjoying the journey, savouring the moments, celebrating milestones, learning and discovering yourself. You are a work in progress and excellence is not a destination! Here are some key principles to follow that will help you achieve excellence.
- Focus on your passions: Discover what you really love and enjoy doing, as these are the things that bring you pleasure and delight. It will feel less like hard work and you will be more involved and engaged. The more involved you are, the more you will learn, experiment and increase your knowledge and skills. These are necessary ingredients for achieving excellence.
- Focus on your strengths: Your strengths are your natural abilities and personal characteristics which will help to fuel and drive your passion. They are present throughout your life, but also can be enhanced through experience and training. Strengths are part of who you are and skills are more about what you do. It is important to understand your strengths first and build on them rather than focusing on acquiring skills which may not be aligned to your strengths. The key to excellence is to focus on your competencies and avoid overemphasis on areas where you may not be naturally talented or competent.
- Fail. Allow yourself to make small mistakes on purpose and notice how inconsequential they are. Failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of success. Remind yourself that you are more than your successes or failures.
- Listen without an agenda. Excellence is less about the destination, more about the journey and all the wonderful insights and experiences we accumulate on the way. Allow yourself to be receptive to the experiences whether big or small, easy or difficult, frustrating or exhilarating, as they are character building blocks for excellence.
- Focus on what really matters. At the end of it all, what truly deeply matters to you? Always ask yourself what is more important, achieving perfection or building relationships, living a full life and being fully present in it. Set boundaries on work and goal achievement.
- Embrace new ideas: Learning about new and interesting things opens up your mind. What interests you? What subject or area would you be keen to learn about? What is your best learning style? Do you learn best through pictures, images or physically by doing or verbally through speech, words and writing. The key is to enjoy learning.
- Collaborate and share with others: Knowledge grows through sharing. What would otherwise take hours to study could be learned quicker through collaborating with others. Hence why many people seek coaching and mentoring. Try teaching others what you know as it is a brilliant way of improving your knowledge and expertise. At the same time you are serving and helping others. Serving, sharing and collaborating are crucial for developing excellence.
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