It sounds like success… “I got a perfect score!” “Your work is perfect!” “I just found the perfect job!” Everybody knows that perfection is the pinnacle of achievement. It’s the top of the mountain.
Or is it? What if we put those statements into future tense? “I’m studying to get a perfect score.” “I’m trying to do perfect work.” “I’m looking for the perfect job.” In a world in which time has become our most precious resource, is the pursuit of perfection the best way to invest it?
Perhaps if “perfect” really existed, it might be. What is perfect, anyway? It’s mostly a mirage. Just as we approach perfection, it evaporates and we’re left to further pursuit. And since we’ve already invested in coming this far, we might as well keep going. After all, perfection is just ahead. Except that it isn’t. It’s another mirage.
This is especially true for those of us in the working world. It’s a world that is moving ever faster, and where the definition of what perfect is, changes by the minute. Just as we get “perfect” into our sight, the requirements change and we’re left to find the new perfect just around the corner. There’s always another exam. We can always find better ways to do our work. Even the best job has things we don’t particularly enjoy. The 4 minute mile was once perfection. Considered beyond the limit of human anatomy, it was then broken by Roger Bannister in 1954. Since then, the previous best record has been broken 18 times and the current record stands at 3:43.13! So much for perfection!
There are other reasons that “perfect”might not be your best investment. Achieving perfection requires focus. In fact, it demands such focus that we often see nothing else. So what happens to the copious supply of very acceptable other solutions? We won’t see them – even though they might be achievable in half the time. In fact, “perfect” is so difficult to achieve that it often leads to procrastination as we get up our strength for the quest. It has also been linked to depression and eating disorders. There is a difference between striving for excellence and requiring perfection.
So, if it’s such an unhealthy time-waster, why do we do it? For some of us, we need to be right. For others, we’re afraid of criticism. And for some, we are afraid to fail. Pursuing perfection seems so admirable. The thought of achieving it will surely bestow upon us protection from criticism and maybe give us unambiguous success. Except that it won’t. We can still be criticized for taking too long or never finishing. And how successful is our quest if we never actually achieve it?
Today is a good day to let go of this habit. Is a 98 on that exam really so terrible? What if we just do great work? What if we simply find a wonderful job? Not perfect. Great! That doesn’t sound so bad! For every illusion of perfection, there is a multitude of GREAT possibilities. Let’s go for those!
A great (notice that I didn’t say perfect!) way to do that is to give ourselves the freedom to fail and iterate. It’s a small adjustment to take a longer term view of perfection, so that its pursuit allows us to learn along the way. What if we were to treat everything we did as an experiment? Each time we try and if we fail, then we learn, make some adjustments, and try again. In the time it would otherwise take us to stew over how to achieve perfection, we could iterate many times, learn a ton, achieve an excellent result, and start on a new project. Like breaking the record mile… there’s no end to the opportunity to break our own records in anything we do.
Learn more. Achieve more. Not perfect… just great!