Two men met on an airplane and began to talk.  They asked each other the usual questions, and as it happened, one of the men was married and the other man was not.  After a while the married man asked, “Why is it that you never married?”

The single man looked pensive then said, “Well, I think I just never met the right woman.”

“Oh, come on,” the married man replied, “surely you’ve met at least one girl during your lifetime that you wanted to marry.”

The single man once again thought about the man’s statement.  “Well, yes, that’s true,” he said.  “There was one girl once.  The perfect girl.  Actually, she was the only perfect girl I have ever met.  Everything she did was absolutely right on.  She really was the perfect girl for me.”

“Well, why on Earth didn’t you marry her?” the married man asked.

“She was looking for the perfect man,” the other replied.

Perfect is the ultimate praise.  But trying to attain perfection can cause stress, hinder efficiency and create unnecessary conflicts.  Perfectionists are frequently thought of as critical, overwhelmed, unable to see the big picture, stressed-out, anxious and rarely able to enjoy their accomplishments.

Perfect is also the ultimate impossibility.  Most of us are content to settle for almost perfect, or pretty darn close.  So it makes sense to focus instead on a goal of excellence:  meeting the highest standards agreed upon for oneself or by the group.

As the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

Excellence means continued personal and professional growth, job satisfaction and customer service, clear and reasonable expectations and a strong sense of accomplishment.


To truly keep on the path toward the pursuit of excellence, give these points some consideration:

  • Get real.  When you find yourself becoming frantic about a goal, stop and ask, “Is this problem really worth the level of frustration I’m experiencing?”  The likelihood that a result can never be good enough is counterproductive to progress.
  • Establish clear expectations.  If you know what’s expected of you, you can better track your progress and draw boundaries when needed, which will help you move forward with a project instead of obsessing on details that may not ultimately make a difference.
  • Identify your triggers.  Learn to recognize the factors that lead or contribute to your perfectionist thinking and behaviors – and avoid them.  If you can’t figure them out by yourself, ask your colleagues.  They will likely be able to tell you what you need to know.
  • Delegate.  Many perfectionists mistakenly believe that they – and only they – can complete the task at hand.  Allow other people to assist you, which will increase the odds that the group will more easily reach excellence.  Then be prepared to be amazed at results that you never imagined might be possible.
  • Know what’s important.  Ask yourself, “What’s most important about this project?”  Seek input from supervisors, colleagues and employees.  Setting your objectives and then identifying key points allows everyone to contribute to the success of the project.
  • Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.  Do the best job possible within the limits of your resources.  Rather than wasting time, energy and money obsessing about how good it could be if you had more to work with, concentrate your efforts on how to get the best result within your limitations.

Longtime readers of this column will suspect I am contradicting one of my favorite aphorisms:  “Practice makes perfect – not true.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”  I still adhere to that philosophy.  If you are practicing to improve performance, whether for a presentation or golf swing, you want to improve your performance, not repeatedly practicing mistakes.

Management guru Stephen Covey put it this way:  “Real excellence does not come cheaply.  A certain price must be paid in terms of practice, patience, and persistence – natural ability notwithstanding.”

In other words, you have to be willing to pay the price, because excellence in any field is not automatic.

I know people who have bowled perfect games.  I have witnessed pitchers throwing perfect games.  Not to brag, but I recently got my first hole-in-one.  Those are rarities, believe me.  And that’s why we keep practicing, as perfectly as we can.


Mackay’s Moral:  Even if you can’t achieve perfection, you should never stop trying.

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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