Why you should strive for excellence at work, not perfection

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People — and managers — have perceptions about our work. These perceptions influence how people work with you and also how they help you in your work and career. When trying to present yourself to others at work, I would suggest striving for excellence, not perfection. Here’s why.

Perfection has pitfalls

Perfection means you never finish

Today’s business moves too fast to achieve perfection. While you are working on ensuring there are no mistakes, nothing that will cause issues and imposing order on your work, your customers of your work become more impatient — “can’t you give me something?” — and eventually leave.

As Psychology Today notes:

What turns life into the punishing pursuit of perfection is the extent to which people are worried about mistakes. Concern with mistakes and doubts about actions are absolute prerequisites for perfectionism. Perfectionists fear that a mistake will lead others to think badly of them; the performance aspect is intrinsic to their view of themselves. They are haunted by uncertainty whenever they complete a task, which makes them reluctant to consider something finished.

Perfection takes too long

Perfectionists tend to not finish tasks because they are so afraid of making mistakes or not completely looking at all aspects of the work. This takes an inordinate amount of time, compounded by constantly reviewing work to look for mistakes.

If you needed quality work done quickly, would you give the work to a perfectionist?

Perfection reduces your performance

Because people are worried about making mistakes, they get anxiety over the work they do, reducing their performance levels — even causing failure. Again, from Psychology Today:

The incessant worry about mistakes actually undermines performance. Canadian psychologists Gordon L. Flett and Paul L. Hewitt studied the debilitating effects on athletes of anxiety over perfect performance. They uncovered “the perfection paradox.” “Even though certain sports require athletes to achieve perfect performance outcomes, the tendency to be cognitively preoccupied with the attainment of perfection often undermines performance.” Over-concern about mistakes orients them to failure.

strive for excellence at work

Instead, strive for excellence

Excellence in the workplace delivers quality

Quality work meets the standards needed for your deliverable. Excellence also means that you’ve identified the areas that are OK for this go-around, but could be improved for the next iteration of the work.

Excellence is about doing outstanding work, not perfect work

This is a difference in perspective. Think of a baseball hitting average of .300 — outstanding compared to the competition. Yet, a perfectionist would think of themselves as an utter failure for getting an out 7 of 10 times at bat.

“There’s a difference between excellence and perfection,” explains Miriam Adderholdt, a psychology instructor at Davidson Community College in Lexington, North Carolina, and author of Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good? Excellence involves enjoying what you’re doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned, and developing confidence. Perfection involves feeling bad about a 98 and always finding mistakes no matter how well you’re doing.

Are you a perfectionist in your work?

We always strive for accuracy in our work — think of a nurse or a doctor administering medication to a patient, for example. But accuracy is different than perfection. Someone who focuses on excellence is proud of their 100% accuracy in delivering medication to patients. Someone who focuses on perfectionism delivers the same 100% accuracy in delivering medications — but wonders if they really did it right.

You build confidence from excellence; you will cover mistakes if you are a perfectionist.

Wouldn’t you rather strive to achieve excellence?

  • I’m glad I came across this. After completing my appraisal, my employer felt that I should not have scored myself as ‘excellent’ in some of the areas; not because I was not excellent in that area, but because he felt it suggested that I was projecting perfection and that there is no room for me to improve. The score marks from the lowest ‘Poor’ to the highest ‘Excellent’

    I of course disagreed, citing that I believed perfection is not the same as excellence. I choose to love what I do and strive for excellence. If I have to reflect that on ‘black and white’ during my appraisal, I think that is ok.

    Unfortunately my employer does not see it that way. His view however does not change my resolve as it relates to what is excellent and what is perfect.

  • Great post, Scot.Excellence is a much more sensible target to shoot for, since perfection is an elusive and virtually impossible target. It has taken me YEARS to learn that point – I still struggle on occasion – and I was pleased to discover that excellence is something I actually have control over.I can always be as excellent as my current ability allows, in any endeavor.Best to you,Scott

  • Matt — that's a very good tie in to prototyping your work with your manager; a very good insight.

    What Matt is saying is that when given a project (e.g., build a presentation), do one part of it and then go to your manager (or customer) and ask if what you have done for this one part was what they were looking for. Right format? Right detail? Right audience?

    It is surprising how much different the task becomes with something tangible to look at and work with compared to the dry “here's the task.”

    The benefits — you are seen as proactive in doing the work. And, most important, you give yourself lots of time to complete the task the new way compared to getting nailed for not delivering what was wanted on the due date.

    Excellent comment, Matt.

  • This is just the sort of article I needed to read, Scott. Yesterday, I received some good praise for my work, only to discover two hours later that I had made a mistake. My first thoughts as a perfectionist were about what people would think of me. It almost paralyzed me to not address the issue and try to find a way around it. Thankfully, my wife was there to remind me to keep thinking and look for a way to resolve the issue.

    For me, coaching is the key for perfectionists in adjusting their perspective toward excellence. Seek the perspective of someone (preferrably not also a perfectionist) who can keep you from 'locking up' when mistakes come along. I think your previous points about prototyping also help, as it gives a safety net that, if coached correctly, can emphasize the move toward excellence.

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