Finding my place between mediocrity and perfectionism
In this society where ambition is celebrated and achievements are worn as badges, the quest for perfection seems like an honourable pursuit. Who hasn’t told a prospective employer — or anyone else they wish to impress — that they are a “perfectionist”?
There are countless studies and articles espousing the negative effects of perfectionism on mental and physical health. It isn’t hard to see how setting impossibly high standards sets us up for failure. And yet, we can’t resist using the word “perfectionist” as a superlative. We say it as if it is both a flaw and a virtue (“Aw, shucks, I’m such a perfectionist”), because we’ve come to believe that it shines a positive light on us.
per·fec·tion·ism | \ pər-ˈfek-shə-ˌni-zəm \
1 : the doctrine that the perfection of moral character constitutes a person’s highest good
2 : a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable
It seems that we must either seek perfection or accept mediocrity — neither of which leave us feeling good about ourselves. So how do we find a middle ground that feels better?
I would like to reframe the concept of perfectionism, to focus on the pursuit of perfection rather than the outcome (the latter being inherently unachievable). It’s a subtle but important shift, because it opens us up to accepting wherever we are on the path toward our goals — rather than seeing our current state as incomplete/less than whole. If perfection is our Holy Grail, then perfectionism could be reframed as a journey toward it — which is both unachievable and worthwhile.
The problem is that humans aren’t great at reframing things — especially words that have been imprinted on us from childhood. It’s not easy to shake off the weight of a concept that has been drilled into us through a lifetime of grades, assessments, evaluations, reviews and critiques — many of which are measured numerically, as if to reinforce that we are fractions of a whole. So allow me to introduce a new idea … but first, I shall digress …
As a longtime entrepreneur, I learned that one of the truest contributors to success is perseverance. When we demonstrate the stick-to-itiveness to persevere through a challenge, we hone our skills and discover new ones. We tap into our creative potential, finding new ways to solve old problems. And we come to understand the value of patience.
per·se·ver·ance | \ ˌpər-sə-ˈvir-ən(t)s \
: continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition : the action or condition or an instance of persevering : STEADFASTNESS.Merriam-Webster
A colleague once said to me that I was “good at a ridiculous number of things.” I took it as a great compliment, but I also recognized a deeper message within it: that I am a generalist; a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none; a man with many skills but little expertise. I recognized that as a generalist, I may never achieve excellence in any one field — or taste the glory that can come from such singular focus.
Recently, while discussing my creative journey — this chapter of my life when I’ve invested much of my energy into writing and music and public speaking — I blurted to a friend that I am a perseverist. I wasn’t sure where the word came from, but I instantly recognized it as the perfect term to define my approach to life: a combination of perfectionism and perseverance that drives me to a broad form of self-improvement.
I admire and appreciate the “lifelong specialists” who pour themselves into something with such dedication that they achieve feats most of us only dream of. Those people — the Olympians, astronauts, scientists, virtuoso musicians, mountaineers — show the rest of us what is possible. Part of me has always wanted to achieve such greatness; but the rest of me has understood that to do so, I would need to give up many other things that bring me joy.
I’ve occasionally questioned whether I am a “serial specialist” — someone who strives to reach a level of excellence in one area, then abandons that field to start anew in another. I’m not. While I am capable of diving deep into a subject for a brief period of time, I always come up for air and look around at all the other experiences I’m missing out on. But I’m also not quick to give up on anything. I like to go back under the water from time to time, and I’m happy to go just a little bit deeper each time.
So what is perseverism? It’s perseverance with an aim toward perfection. It’s striving for excellence while recognizing that I may never achieve it. It’s trying to enjoy the journey — or more accurately, many parallel journeys — without focusing too much on my destination(s). It’s allowing myself to put myself out there — to write a book, sing a song, deliver a speech — without needing to be perfect. It’s realizing that we only get better at things by doing them. It’s avoiding the trap of perfectionism: the unwillingness to present one’s self as anything less than whole. It’s recognizing the difference between inexperience and mediocrity. It is, quite simply, being human … and being okay with that.
I’m going to start lobbying Merriam-Webster to add “Perseverism” to their dictionary. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight — I have other things to work on, too.