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Excellence, Perfection & Mastery

by Tom O'Connor on November 17th, 2010
Meryl Streep as the perfectionist boss, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada

Meryl Streep as perfectionist boss, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada

Psychologists are wary of perfection, as seen by the many books on the topic.

Some of the more catchy titles include:

 – When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism 

 – Overcoming Perfectionism: The Key to a Balanced Recovery

 – What to Do When Good Isn’t Good Enough.

The basic contention is that if one tries to live up to very high standards, one is open to some debilitating traps down the road.  

Essentially, the law of unintended consequences can kick in – leading to chronic procrastination, fear of failure, frustration, etc.

Standards & Self-Esteem
These considerations are the subject of much discussion in matters of education and child development, especially as it relates to the setting of standards and grading of exams.

Recently, the Pulitzer-prize winning author, George Will, initiated a lively debate on the subject in the Washington Post, where he highlighted how a Massachusetts’ school no longer uses a rope in its rope-jumping gym exercise.

Instead, the children simply jump over an imaginary rope in their mind.

The school management’s idea here is to avoid having any set height standard for the jump exercise, to ensure that everybody can feel like they actually jumped the rope – and not suffer any loss of self-esteem in being seen to trip or fall. 

In the workplace, things are somewhat different:  keeping score is still core and perfectionism hasn’t gone away.

Steve Jobs an uber-perfectionist
Witness how Fortune Magazine has voted uber-perfectionist, Steve Jobs,  “CEO Of The Decade” – and his company, Apple, Inc.,  the “World’s Most Admired Company” in each of the past 3 years. 

Steve is legendary for his attention to detail and his tendency to micro-manage down to the very last design detail.

He has been known to pull product launches at the very last minute, when he finds a flaw, no matter how tiny the issue or costly the withdrawal..

In his 2005 Commencement Speech at Stanford, we get a peek into this side of his character – when he recalls how it was his esoteric passion for calligraphy that contributed so much to the launch of the Mac:

“I learned about serif and san-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture     and I found it fascinating …. when we were designing the first Macintosh      computer, it all came back to me, and we designed it all into the Mac”.      

Perfectionists: Howard Hughes & Miranda Priestly
And, witness the movie scene of late: 2 of the most acclaimed box-office successes of the decade depict arch-perfectionists:

Recall that moment in Aviator (2004), when Howard Hughes runs his hand along the body of his new plane, luxuriating in the smoothness of the curvature, yet still is not wholly satisfied.

He pushes his team on with that memorable line:

“not enough, not enough … I want NO wind resistance on the fuselage. She has got to be clean … clean, understand”.

Or, Meryl Streep, in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), cast in the role of fashion diva, Miranda Priestly (widely assumed to be based on longtime Vogue editor, Anna Wintour), when she lays into one of her designers:

“You make a woman feel powerful, special, beautiful. Even if she is none of those things …. That is what you were put on the planet to do. This, on the other hand, is just plain bad. Burn it. Think of something else. I know it will be divine”.

Excellnce & perfection guidelines
So, what advice can we offer, then: is perfection good or bad; something to seek or avoid in our work?

The simple answer is: it’s a double-edged sword, it depends on the situation.

But, there are a couple of simple guidelines that can help:

First, ask yourself how serious are the consequences of being “less than perfect”.

That’s what’s on the mind of the perfectionist Sgt. Stryker, played by John Wayne, in the old WW2 movie, Sands of Iwo Jimaas he explains to his troops:

“A lot of guys make mistakes, I guess, but every one we make … some guy don’t walk away – forevermore, he don’t walk away.”

Perfection has a cost & time penalty
Second, don’t lose sight that perfection usually comes with a serious time and cost penalty. So, be clear on the return on investment question.

Third, understand that perfection is an experiential concept; so it is probably most appropriate, if the “experience” of your product is what’s important.

So, if you’re in the fast-food business, “excellence” is probably sufficient; however, if you’re thinking Michelin Star, you need to be looking more at “perfection”.

Approach perfection in stages
Fourth, understand that perfection can be approached in stages.

Remember Steve Jobs’ first Mac wasn’t perfect; otherwise, there wouldn’t have been any need for the various upgrades.

So, segment your thinking a bit: you might start with “good” to test the water; upgrade to “excellent” once demand is assured and top it off with “perfection” when you can see a home-run in sight.

Distinguishing good, excellent or perfect
In a nutshell, you got to distinguish what the situation demands – “good”, “excellent” or “perfect”.

That, of course, is not always easy to tell, in advance.

But that’s a story for another day: that’s “mastery”.

PS. For details on our related Mastering Personal Effectiveness, 1-day training programme, please click here.

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