Perfectionism is the enemy of the pursuit of excellence

Rossall INSPIRE is the umbrella under which members of the Rossall community come together to share knowledge, ideas and perspectives on all aspects of education and learning. Dina Porovic, our Senior Deputy Head, puts forward the reasons why the pursuit of excellence must not be sabotaged by the idolisation of perfection.

There is something very gratifying in claiming to be a perfectionist. After all, it is by its very nature a self-deprecating statement “it is my pursuit of perfection that prevents me from…” rushing things, finishing things before they are fully complete, settling before the thing I am creating resembles the perfection and beauty presented to us in nature. I do not want to disappoint. I am a perfectionist.

Perfection, after all, as a concept, is one that we associate with absolute virtue.

“The true work of art is but a shadow of divine perfection” attributed to Michelangelo sits alongside his incredible artistic achievements, his beautiful and intricate paintings and sculptures. If Michelangelo believed in the pursuit of perfection, then not only is perfection a virtue but so is the pursuit of it.

To attain perfection, to attain the unattainable, is to bask in the glory of your endeavours and your determination to stop at nothing to ensure that your piece of work or your performance, is not only beyond reproach, but better than anyone could have done. Ever.

“I probably do have an obsessive personality but striving for perfection has served me well” says Tom Ford, one of the world’s most famous fashion designers who has served as the creative director at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before launching his own luxury brand.

And yet, in all of this sits an uncomfortable truth. Perfection, even in nature, exists as a theoretical concept and not as a lived reality.

In maths we talk about the golden ratio that ties together dimensions of a person’s face or a person’s body that we find particularly pleasing to the eye. We claim that this ratio is a naturally occurring phenomenon, which is why it holds such appeal. Similarly we talk about appearance being more appealing when there is symmetry. The truth however is that whilst we observe a relationship between our assessment of beauty with such measures, if we set out to create it by applying the rule artificially and totally, we end up with something far less attractive than what nature presents us with.

In my last year of university I, like many soon to be graduates, was spending my time between preparing for my finals and eagerly awaiting the start of the rest of my life whilst at the same time confused and at times terrified at the thought of what this might mean. I went for a number of job interviews and each time came across myself, the person I had become and the person I definitely was not.

The most disastrous of my interviews was perhaps the one with a large cosmetics company. From the moment I walked through the crystal clear glass doors and sat on some incredibly uncomfortable but mesmerising waiting room sofas, I realised that I was in the wrong place. I have no doubt from the moment I walked in, they suspected the same. Nevertheless, we all persevered in the spirit of British politeness and endured an hour long interview that was excruciatingly awkward. I did not look the part and gave no answers that they were looking for. I had prepared poorly and was counting on my charm and flair to get me through the first round at least. No perfection there.

Having torn apart any sense of appropriateness by wading in with questions about animal testing, we turned to the concept of “beauty”. “Tell me about something beautiful,” said the jaded interviewer. I racked my brains for what the word “beautiful” really meant to me. I described a sunrise through the cherry blossom on my way to school framed by a cloudless sky. The interviewer looked distinctly uncomfortable, as though I had just trod on her toe or announced that a bag of smelly garbage was going to be taking up a permanent residence outside of her office door.

She said “That’s nice. Can you tell me about something real”. I must have looked confused; sunrises and cherry blossoms are real as far as I could make out. Fortunately, she had the patience of a minor saint, and pointed out to me that by real she meant “a picture”. Oh! I said. Wheels turned in my head once again – what beautiful pictures do I know? I was an avid art gallery frequenter at the time but have always been terrible with names. And then, a reassuring whisper from my subconscious – “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt appeared like a gift, to save me from the tyranny. Proudly, I announced it and explained how the embrace in this painting, the two faces tenderly close, swam out in a sea of gold. That embrace for me was the true expression of love. And love is beautiful.

“No. Not a painting” she said.

“How about a photograph? How about this photograph?”

Now sadly I can no longer find the exact photo that she showed me, but it looked something like this:

And she asked me “Don’t you think this is beautiful?”

“No. Not really.”

“Why not?”

The problem with the photograph the interviewer showed me was that it was an advert for a perfume. The model, looking wistfully into the distance had been stripped of all but the most critical of her facial features. Today we would call that a filter I would guess.

No. This is not beautiful. Beauty is ultimately about the characteristics and features that make us unique. When you take those away, all that is left is something very plain, bland and certainly not beautiful in the way that I would describe. Some might say it is perfect, but it is not beautiful.

At that stage, as you might well imagine, the interview was over. Relief.

The frustration of that interview has never truly left me however and neither has my wariness of the pursuit of perfection.

It is important to clarify however that I absolutely believe in the pursuit of excellence. I strongly believe that it is the only way to work and to be. But excellence is achievable and measurable. The pursuit of it is a process. Improvement is visible, definable. The person striving for it can be held accountable for what they have and have not done. They can distinguish how far they have come and what the next steps are in achieving excellence.

When it comes to excellence, there are no excuses. You can’t be excellent if you are late, if you don’t finish what you started, if you procrastinate and prevaricate. You cannot be excellent if your work is riddled with mistakes, if it is not referenced properly, if you haven’t acted on advice. If you’ve settled.

Nobody ever expects you to be perfect, nor is it wise to set your heart on lofty ambitions of things you cannot attain so that you can console yourself that the reason you didn’t get there isn’t because of you but because perfection is unattainable.

If you truly believe in being the very best version of yourself, in achieving all that you are capable of, in living a life that is rewarding and fulfilling, seek excellence, not perfection.

Dina Porovic