Striving for Excellence and other Foolish Acts

From: L. Michael Hall
2021 Neurons #62
September 20, 2021


Perhaps the most subtle way that people sneak perfectionism into their lives is by giving it different names. Because many are weary about perfectionism, they don’t use that term. Instead they call it by other names. “I’m just striving to be the best that I can be.” Or, ‘I’m just trying to meet the quota and deadlines that have been set, that’s all.” Or, “I’m just striving for excellence, not to be perfect.” Ah, yes, sneaky indeed!

If you ask, “What’s the problem with perfectionism?” there are many. Not only does it establish a nearly impossible goal, but it sets up an expectation that is sure to come back to bite you in the rear-end. You raise your standards or criteria and then when you get anything less— you feel disappointed! You’re upset, perhaps even depressed. So you beat yourself up, and freely “should” on yourself. “I should have tried harder.” “I should have started sooner.” “I should have…” the expectation delivers a bite into your attitude and state of mind. You now become less and less patient, tolerant, and accepting. These are the unecological consequences of perfectionism.

Another problem. Perfectionism puts you on a treadmill so that you strive and strive. Now sometimes, through all of that striving you may actually reach your goal and if so, you will then feel great. But this also becomes a danger point— dangerous that you might take that illusion outcome and think that this is the way to do things, to get things done. “Just give 100%, burn the candle at both ends if necessary, strive until you’re exhausted, run on adrenalin— that’s the secret of success.”

But it is not. All of that is delusional. It is not ecological and it is certainly not sustainable. That’s a formula for burn-out, for stress-induced illnesses, for ruining your relationships, and for the loss of your vitality over the long-run. It is also a formula for procrastination. The reason is that if it takes all of that to succeed, then you are more likely to wait until you are fully ready to make that commitment. So today, you put things off.

Using “striving to be the best you can” or “striving to be excellent” as your approach to learning, to skill development, to actualizing your highest and best— is unrealistic for fallible humanity. It does not bring out our best. In the short-term, it may work and thereby deceive you, but in the long-term, it is a disastrous strategy.

What’s more effective? A more effective strategy is to learn a new skill one step at a time. It is to take things slow and easy and to have fun playing with it until you get the feel for it. Instead of “striving to be the best” aim to simply learn one new distinction at a time. Then aim to practice that new distinction until you get it—until you integrate it and make it automatic. First learn to keep the bicycle balanced so it stays upright and moves forward. Later on you can think about riding with no hands or doing flips. Don’t worry about excellent, instead concern yourself with quality. If you need to go slower to do quality work or learning, go slower.

One way to be kind and gentle with yourself as you learn is to count everything that moves in the right direction. Rewarding the little pieces that are working sets in motion the learning process. It is the high standards of perfectionism that leads to discounting the progress you are making, and that will kill your spirit. Then, when you have a whole day of discounted attempts— you’ll feel like quitting, you’ll go home feeling frustrated and angry.

The best learning and development comes from states of openness, exploration, curiosity, fun, playfulness, etc. It does not come from stress— from being upset, frustrated, angry, etc. Those are not good learning states. Putting yourself under pressure does not bring out your best. Learning a single distinction, integrating it well, having fun is th way to go. Then you can go on to the next distinction, the next skill. Focus on one thing at a time and as you do— be fully present to it. Release from your mind and concern any worry about the future. Keep bringing your focus back to today and to the activity.

Instead of striving to be the best, or excellent, strive to enjoy learning what you are learning. If the striving is “work” if it is hard, burdensome, a chore, tedious, etc., you will burn-out. If the striving is enjoyable because it is meaningful, valuable, if it counts— then you will keep at it and if you keep at it in this way— you will get better and better and one day, you may become an expert. And that’s how you’ll actualize your highest and best.