Excellence versus Perfectionism

Excellence versus Perfectionism

Narendra M Apte

We are living in a world which is becoming fiercely competitive: there is fierce competition for limited number of seats in schools, colleges and other centres of learning. In metros, cities and towns, this competition becomes so demanding that parents are compelled to spend huge amounts for child’s admission in such schools, which have high reputation for quality education provided by them. Naturally, in such an environment, parents of every child expect their child to excel in examinations so that the child would within top 20, 50 or 100 as the case may be. This overpowering desire that child should always do well and achieve academic excellence drives parents to do unnatural and crazy things. A relevant and interesting question in this regard is this: should not parents tell their child about a value system which approves pursuit of excellence desirable but shuns unrealistic goals and mindless perfectionism?

Excellence is defined as ‘the quality of being outstanding or extremely good’. Perfectionism indicates a desire to be perfect as per the doer’s interpretation of a perfect way of doing things.

Someone who is a perfectionist refuses to do or accept anything that is not as good as it could possibly be. Very often, an individual who wishes to be perfect while accomplishing simple tasks like writing a letter or shaving may make life difficult for himself and people around him. Very often, a perfectionist may not be able to accomplish what an individual pursuing excellence would accomplish as the former is more worried about how others’ perception is about his way of doing things rather than the result.

Is perfectionism a craze or is it a passion or is it a life goal? Psychologists describe perfectionism as a personality trait, which many have both positive and not so positive angles. Opinions differ and we need to remove many misconceptions on subject of perfectionism.

Psychologists say that ‘perfectionism has nothing to do with being perfect but everything to do with feeling perfect’. Pursuits of both excellence and perfectionism come with a cost but in case of excellence, if one enjoys the process of achieving excellence then it would become a pleasant exercise. But very often pursuit of perfectionism becomes a mechanical activity which is done for sake of activity, without a goal. In such a case, perfectionism comes with a high cost of unbearable stress. That is why psychologists’ advice is to avoid pursuit of perfectionism.

When some is pursuing excellence she would have to adopt a methodical approach. She would make systematic and well-planned efforts to achieve a set goal. Those efforts are actually part of a process which leads to achievement of excellence. Those who pursue excellence are actually enjoying the process itself and hence they never are concerned about perfect ways to do a particular thing. A Perfectionist, on the other hand, has no particular goal and is not keen about achieving excellence as she rarely enjoys the process of achieving excellence. Perfectionism does indicate a methodical approach but on many occasions pursuit of perfectionism may mean aimless effort and waste of time and energy.

It would be interesting to just contrast the characteristics of a perfectionist with that of an individual who has ‘chalata hai yaar’ or ‘chy’ attitude. Latter is simply unconcerned about what is happening in the world around him, since he never strives for perfection. He accepts things as they are. He has no complaints about the world around him. This may be a secret of his happiness.

If head of a family is a perfectionist, his family members may be targets of occasional outbursts of his anger and helplessness at the same time.

Two examples from world of sports would be appropriate to understand inherent contradictions between pursuit of excellence and perfectionism. A bowler may spend hours to achieve perfectionism in bowling a yorker ball at his will. However, in a particular match he may fail do so as actual condition on cricket pitch on day of match may not be conducive for fast bowling. Point is that right thing to do for a bowler would be to make efforts to excel as a bowler irrespective of achieving so-called perfection. If bowler can enjoy bowling as such and gives his best to excel as a bowler, he would be able to contribute for a win by his team. Second example is from game of lawn tennis. A tennis player may aim to achieve perfectionism in hitting an offensive or defensive lob shot but in actual practice his opponent may frustrate him by attacking play. Here again point is that in a game of sports, players should concentrate not to achieve perfectionism but to achieve excellence by improving consistency and adaptability.

In conclusion one can say that passionate pursuit of either excellence or perfectionism or both would be worth it if it is for an achievable goal. There is little justification for pursuing perfectionism by doing something perfect just for the sake of it being seen as perfect.

(Narendra M Apte, a qualified chartered accountant, is a freelancer.)