Excellence and Perfection

Can excellence exist without perfection?

Sign: Wisdom yes; perfectionism, noThe woman presenting a lecture on grit last night claimed that people who exhibit grit focus on the former rather than the latter. That sparked a lively discussion among some of her listeners. Some believe perfection must automatically be excellent. Why wouldn’t we strive for perfection? they asked.

I thought about the writers I’ve worked with over the years. So many get stuck because if they cannot compose the perfect sentence—and, spoiler alert, no one can compose a perfect sentence, certainly not on a first try—they’re afraid to write anything.

I thought about myself, when I’m learning a new skill. It’s much easier to stop trying at all than to confront my mediocre attempts.

In those cases, striving for perfection doesn’t produce excellence, it produces nothing.

As my friend (and not relative) Sam Bennett says: “Get a C.” Do something. Try. And if you fall short of excellence, congratulate yourself on being human. If improvement is important to you, then try again. And again after that (for 10,000 hours, if you believe the statistic Malcolm Gladwell misquoted). That’s grit.

Maybe at some point you’ll stumble onto excellence; maybe not. But perfection—if that’s your goal, you’ll never get anything creative done.

Perfection – the worst goal ever

“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” — Mark Twain

You can always count on Mark Twain for exactly the right sentiment. If he’d invented the greeting card industry instead of trying to automate the printing press, he might not have gone bankrupt.

I’ve written about perfection before—about how my favorite coach, Sam Bennett (no relation), reminds us to “Get a C.”

My favorite guru, Seth Godin, translates that as “Ship your work.” Don’t wait for it to be perfect, because such a state doesn’t exist.

My education primed me for this early on, because my school didn’t use letter grades. Teachers graded us on a scale of 1-100. And of course, no one ever expected to get 100 because we all—teachers and students—understood that perfection doesn’t exist. Until one of my friends produced a paper so exquisite in every way that the teacher had to give it 100—her husband, a New York Times columnist, argued her into it. It was the schoolyard equivalent of Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10; the grade heard ’round the world. Or at least ’round the Upper East Side of New York.

But in real life, the folks judging you don’t usually get an assist from a New York Times columnist. In that world, perfection—if it exists—is fleeting and exceedingly rare. Better not to aim for the bull’s-eye of 100 when you can much more frequently hit the fatter target of the 90s. Even the 80s is perfectly respectable. But when you don’t ship your work, you have absolutely no chance of hitting the target at all.

That’s a form of perfection, too: a perfect failure. The worst goal ever.Austin Kleon reframes the idea of perfection

So don’t be perfect in your failure; be imperfect in your attempts to shine, to make a difference. Go read Austin Kleon’s invaluable book Show Your Work!—you can easily finish it in a weekend. And then do it: Show your work, warts and all.

Because nobody’s perfect. So stop trying.

Perfectly imperfect: What draws us in?

I have always hated being imperfect. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist because we’re all evolved enough to know that unless you’re a neurosurgeon, perfectionism is a character flaw. And—surprise—I don’t like thinking of myself as flawed, either.

My favorite business coach, Samantha Bennett (sadly, we’re not related), has tried to instill in me an appreciation for imperfection. “Don’t be afraid to get  a C,” Sam says. Or as PR expert Sakita Holley, the host of a delightful podcast I recently found, says in her latest episode: “Done is better than perfect.

Of course, they’re both right. I can think of only one upside to a world in which we all wait to achieve perfection before acting: A whole lot less email. Then again, we might not have any computers on which to receive it. Tech wizards have mastered the art of “ship now; debug later.” And annoying as it is when you’re the person who gets the wonky upgrade, I don’t see anyone clamoring to return to the days of carbon paper and carrier pigeon.

Imperfect is much more interesting

Cindy Crawford’s mole—a facial “imperfection”—made her millions. It made her recognizable; she stood out in the crowd of leggy beauties in our fashion magazines.

Flawless delivery, like flawless skin, is much less interesting. Think of all the boring Saturday Night Live sketches that only get funny when we watch one of the performers fight not to burst out laughing. It’s unexpected. And it’s endearing. The celebrity suddenly becomes human.

One of the reasons I find Sakita’s podcast “delightful” is that she is not afraid to be imperfect. Even though I’ve never met her, when I listen to an episode I feel like I’m gabbing with a girlfriend over tea, not listening to some blow-dried “expert.”

Now, please don’t mistake my praise of imperfection as license to be unprepared. If you stumble over a passage when delivering your speech because something distracted you momentarily—hey, it happens to the best of us. No harm, no foul.

But if you stumble because you haven’t read the thing before you stepped up to the microphone, shame on you. You’re not respecting your audience, and the time they’ve invested to listen to you.

Prepare to do your best, always—but don’t expect that “your best” will ever be perfect. It won’t be. And that’s probably a good thing.

Perfect

Seth Godin started a small argument in my house the other day. I had the headphones on, listening to a podcast interview with him—sorry, I can’t remember which one—and at one point, I unleashed a rather loud, “WHOOOOAH.”

Of course the spouse wanted to know what I’d heard.

“Seth Godin just said, ‘Perfect is meaningless if no one sees it.'”

She said, “I disagree.”

(Whooooah.)

The spouse has one of those coder-type jobs—no one sees what she does, but a mistake could gum things up for tens of thousands of people in the organization. So after I got over my initial shock, I understood the perspective.

I explained that Seth was talking more about people like me: I could spend a month crafting the perfect paragraph, but what’s the point if no one but me reads it? Better to ship today and correct, if you need to, tomorrow. Besides, when words interact with people, they form new ideas; some may even be better.

So I let my work go. I blog here daily—some posts undoubtedly better than others—and I meet my clients’ deadlines. Always.

My work may not be perfect, but it’s not meaningless. It gets seen.