Excellence over Perfection

Do we really believe that perfection is overrated?

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This morning on the subway I overheard a woman telling her friend about her frustration with her work. She complained about the learning curve at her new job, her inability to master the craft a few weeks in. While she enjoys the nature of her work, she is becoming increasingly impatient with the process of growing into her new role. She wanted to be the best at her work but lacked the time in takes to perfect a skill. Sound familiar?

The reality is, in different ways and to varying degrees, we all feel this tension between the work we actually produce and the work we hope to produce. Particularly in seasons of transition, the desire to achieve perfect quickly creeps into our work. In the classroom, it is easy to be consumed by a bad quiz grade or the number of red marks on a term paper. In our internships or side hustles, it is easy to be consumed by comparison or lack of creativity.

We all want to do good work and, the reality is, most of us feel like we are failing at some aspect of our work. In these cases, it is tempting to tip over into a quest for perfection. However, this is a terrible way to approach the opportunities we have and the work we do.

Our best work is not perfect work. Inadequacy does not have to be the foundation of our work. As college students, in particular, there is room to ask questions, to embrace failure, and to practice curiosity. Our best work is simply doing our best. As Gordon T. Smith offers in Courage and Calling, “excellence is ultimately judged by whether we did our best.”

If Smith’s words are true, our best work is an evolving thing. We often think that excellence looks like producing near perfect work. In reality, “excellence comes slowly and incrementally; it is learned through rehearsal and practice and more practice.”

Striving to do our best work is an opportunity to grow. Smith goes on to say that, “You can always keep this principle in mind: if excellence comes slowly and incrementally, through practice, then resolve that you will get better, each time around, at what you do moderately well.” Isn’t this the call of a student? To take the next four years with intention and care, learning from your professors and peers as you seek to do better work?

This framework removes the pressure. There is no need for anxiety or fear in our work when we approach each day with a desire to learn and grow. Thomas Merton writes, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” This is how we ought to work, with the courage to try new things and the belief that improvement comes over time.

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