We’ve just passed the time of year when we all start reflecting on the past year or so, and in this process of reflection I’ve realized that I’ve changed quite a bit over the last couple of years. I’ll be graduating from college this spring if all goes well, so I’ve been reflecting on my time in college. I realized that the biggest change in my life since my freshman year has been a seemingly simple shift of perspective: I’ve started focusing less on perfection and more on excellence.
I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a results-oriented, competitive household. Even if I did well in an academic competition or in school, I was consistently told that I could be doing better. My parents meant well, and wanted the best for me, but a lot got lost in translation.
And so, for years, I never felt good enough. I was always doing more, trying harder, and setting difficult goals for myself in hopes that I would one – get the congratulations I always wanted (a good job with no qualification or what if) and two – be good enough. Good enough for what, I have no idea. The main point here is that I was generally unsatisfied. My driving force for many of my high school years was to graduate with a perfect (4.0) GPA, and I used that goal as motivation. It worked, I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, but there was still something missing. I was ‘successful’, but ultimately empty and unfulfilled by the work I had done. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, I experienced relief.
And so I arrived at college, again with the same goal: graduate with a perfect GPA! I used to think that GPA meant everything, and that having a perfect one was a step in the right direction. Now I know that having a good (or great) GPA is a good thing, but if it becomes an obsession and begins to cause inordinate amounts of stress, then it’s not worth it! This goal of graduating with a perfect GPA started to get in the way of my education itself. Ironic, right? My freshman year of college I had the good fortune of meeting some of the most passionate and technically sharp people I’ve ever met. To my surprise, most of them did not have perfect or near perfect GPA’s. At some point after that, I had an epiphany: my education is and should be about more than a single number. That was the beginning of my journey from perfectionism to excellence! I gradually started spending more time on extracurricular activities and building friendships that will last for a lifetime. I’ve maintained a pretty good GPA but it’s not perfect, and I’m ok with that!
Since then, I’ve discovered that perfectionism is a sort of distorted, twisted version of excellence. The pursuit of perfectionism focuses on the end result and often results in dissatisfaction because after all, few things in life are ever perfect. The pursuit of excellence focuses more on being or doing the best you can at a certain task or in a given situation and not comparing yourself to others (or a standard of perfection) throughout the process.
Perfection is also the enemy of excellence. Seeking perfection also lends itself to fearing failures to the point of avoiding acceptable and beneficial risks to avoid a possible failure by always choosing the ‘safe’ option. Over the last year, I’ve learned to evaluate risks and determine if they’re worth taking based on a standard of excellence instead of perfection. So far the risks I’ve taken paid off! For example, I used to be afraid to apply for internships because I was afraid I would “fail” and ruin my perfect track record by not getting an offer. I didn’t see the big picture and realize that not applying was the only way to ensure that I would not get an offer.
So, what separates excellence from mediocrity? If I’m no longer using perfection as my motivation or goal, how do I ensure that the work I do is excellent? For me, the first step is to define what excellence is for specific tasks. Perfection is not something I can define for myself: it’s an external definition that I can’t change. However, I do have the power to define what excellence means and set achievable and feasible goals! If I define excellence as “always giving 100%” then I may be slipping back into my perfectionist-ey habits. Having a specific defnintion of what excellence is for specific tasks or projects is key for focusing on excellence rather than perfection. And that begs the question: when is “good enough” good enough?
That’s up to you!