Perfectionism’s Dark Side part 2: From Perfection to Excellence

Edwin Bliss (American broadcaster) quote: "The pursuit of excellence is gratifying and healthy. The pursuit of perfection is frustrating, neurotic and a terrible waste of time."Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs and some other famous people have reputations as perfectionists. But are those reputations justified? Are those famous figures truly perfectionists, or are they, perhaps, those seeking excellence in disguise? And even if our famous figures’ reputations are deserved, and true perfectionism is what plagues or plagued them, what are the costs of that perfectionism? Yes, the reward of their achievements are apparent, but might there be some costs not readily visible to those of us at a distance?

We established the costs of perfectionism in our last blog. This time around, we will provide some answers to the perfectionism problem. But let’s start at the beginning. First, let’s learn to recognize perfectionism in ourselves and others. Naming a thing for what it is often frees us to go on to the work of transformation, so let’s do that for the mental-emotional challenge named perfectionism. Let’s define it:

“A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.”

—Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary

Less than perfection is unacceptable. Unrealistically demanding goals. Failure is unacceptable and a sign of worthlessness. Does that sound healthy, inspiring and productive? Hmm…nope!

Next, let’s define what many call excellence in order to contrast that term—and state of being and performance—with perfectionism.

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”


Sound a bit different than perfection? Yes. The language used to define excellence is invigorating and uplifting, but it’s not intimidating. Take the phrase “exalted in merit,” for example. The words do not imply perfection whatsoever, but they carry a strong sense of admiration from achievement.

Distinguishing perfection from excellence is a good place to begin the journey of transforming the former to the latter. Anyone can do it, although one is required to step back from oneself—as if viewing the day’s performance from the perspective of an outsider—to discover the attitudes and actions that comprise it.

If that is not enough, here are a few self-reflection questions to bring the view into clearer focus.

To check for perfectionism (adapted from

  • Do I have trouble meeting my standards?
  • Am I rarely satisfied with anything less than a perfect outcome?
  • Do I experience failure of any kind as very negative?
  • Do I think that mistakes make me unworthy?
  • Do my standards get in the way?For example, do they make it difficult for me to meet deadlines, finish a task, trust others, or do anything spontaneously?
  • Am I often defensive when criticized?

To check for excellence:

  • Do I typically set high standards that are achievable?
  • Do I enjoy the process of reaching a goal as much as I enjoy the outcome?
  • Am I able to bounce back quickly from failure and learn lessons in the process?
  • Do I see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow?
  • Do my standards lift me up, challenging me to do my best and inspiring performance?
  • Am I open to criticism, learning all I can from it?

There you have it: two checklists, plus your answers. Then, this final question:

On which list did you check the most items?

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