The difference between pursuing excellence and being a perfectionist

When we started B-School we had a getting-started week to prepare for the program and lay the foundation for the rest of the MBA education we were to receive over the following two years. We had a seminar with the Glaser’s, a husband and wife team that specialize in equipping people to better handle interpersonal relationships. My classmates embraced and, sometimes, made fun of the 80/20 rule that was introduced. No, it wasn’t the 80% of work is done by 20% of people or 80% of revenue come from 20% of products (although those are both legit).  In this case, the idea was that someone on our study teams (or work teams) could call 80/20 when we were reach a point of diminishing returns to signal that we should move on.

This 80/20 rule is particularly interesting when dealing with a group of Type-A’s because for some Type-A is synonymous with being a perfectionist, getting perfect grades and being at the top of the class. And, for some, Type-A manifests itself by getting involved in as many activities as possible. In some cases it means both but our generation seems to have a better drive for work/life balance.

The point of all this is that by working with 100 very smart people I’ve started be able to spot the difference between those that are pursuing excellence and those that are simply perfectionists. Let me be clear, you can pursue excellence and be a perfectionist but I don’t believe they go together often. The reason? Being a perfectionist is about proving yourself to others, proving your ability, perhaps even something done out of fear in attempt to avoid looking foolish. What does it take? Work ethic and a willingness to put in time, time to keep polishing until it can’t shine any brighter – pushing through despite diminishing returns. A noble effort indeed but not all that value adding… take math, you can run numbers by hand and go over your work until it’s ‘perfect’ or you could just let Excel do it for you.

Pursuing excellence on the otherhand is about doing something special, something different, something of unique value. In reality, excellence is rarely perfect but generally not something just anyone can do with enough time or effort – unless of course your special brand of excellence is being able to think on your feet and produce quality (not necessarily perfect) work quickly. Excellence is about not being perfect. It’s about choosing something you’re willing to let suffer so that something else can be special… it’s also about knowing when the returns of simply doing more work aren’t worth the effort.

There’s a place for perfection but true perfection is rarely what’s called for. The next time you’re pulling a late night or beating yourself up over something stop and ask yourself, “Am I pursuing excellence or am I merely being a perfectionist?”

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