Chasing Perfection…

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines ‘perfection’ as “excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement” or “entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings and meeting supreme standards of excellence.”

It was Michael J. Fox, the Canadian-American actor, author, celebrity, producer, activist, and voice-over artist, who said “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”

Perfection should be our goal. We should always strive to achieve perfection in what we do. It can be anything—an essay or a book that we are writing, a musical instrument that one is learning, a painting or statue that we are creating, a product that you are making, a garden that you are tending, a customer service request that one is attending to, etc. We can try to become perfect in whatever we do; in fact we should try to become perfect in whatever we do.

“Aim at perfection in anything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it that those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable.” – Lord Chesterfield (British statesman and writer).

Aiming and striving for perfection is good as you will work hard, concentrate more, produce quality work, and have a sense of satisfaction. But perfection should not become an obsession. Giving excessive importance to perfection can be dangerous. An obsession with perfection can be a productivity killer and have catastrophic consequences like frustration, depression, and dejection. Everyone who wants to be successful should know when to stop trying.

You should know when to stop working on a task and move on to the next project. Doing one task and devoting all your time, effort, and energy to make that perfect, while ignoring the other tasks that you have to complete, can create many problems as you will never be able to accomplish anything.

Laurell K. Hamilton, the American fantasy and romance writer, believes that too much struggle for perfection can hinder productivity: “Perfection is an unattainable goal. It isn’t going to be perfect. Just get words on paper, and when you stumble to what you think is the end of the book, you will have hundreds of pages of words that came out of your head. It may not be perfect, but it looks like a book.”

The above arguments do not any way imply that one should sacrifice quality for quantity. Quality is important, very important; so is productivity. So, one should aim at improving productivity while maintaining quality. There are many things that one can do to achieve these twin goals.

Become a master of your craft. Learn your trade from the best masters. Observe successful people in your profession and find out what makes them successful. Learn the ropes first and then move on to the tips, tricks, and shortcuts that will enable you to be more productive without compromising on quality. Three most important things for success are continuous learning, continuous improvement, and constant practice.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” – Henry Ford

One should never stop learning. There will be new things and advancements in your profession. Technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, trends and tastes of people are changing by the day, new developments are happening every minute, new tools that makes work easier are being developed every day, new features are being added to existing tools making them more powerful. You cannot ignore these and hope to be successful in your profession. You have to learn continuously; you should always be a student. As Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford commencement address, you should always “stay hungry and stay foolish,” so that you would always be willing to learn.

It’s often said that it’s not what you know, but it’s what you don’t know that’s most important. As Plato said, “The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.” Thus, the more we learn about a subject the more we will able to appreciate it. Also we will know more about what we don’t know. So only by continuously learning that one can master a craft.

Kaizen is a Japanese word which means ‘continuous improvement.’ In kaizen, one seeks for improving one’s skills regularly by analyzing the flaws and inefficiencies and removing them. One also tries to improve one’s knowledge, efficiency, proficiency, productivity, quality, etc. The improvements need not be big; in fact small improvements on a regular basis can have dramatic impact in the quality and productivity over a period of time. Kaizen, which originated in the manufacturing industry to improve productivity and reduce waste, can be applied to any discipline and in any situation as there is always scope for improvement.

The Zen concept also emphasizes continuous learning and improvement. According to Zen philosophy, by continuous learning and continuous improvement one learns to do better what one already does well.

We cannot learn something and then forget it until we need it again. It is said that you never forget to ride a bike. So, when you try to ride a bike after many years of not doing it, relearning how to cycle does indeed occur surprisingly quickly. Here the key word is ‘relearning.’ If you are not using a skill, however proficient you were in it, you will have to relearn it and it will still take some time to reach your original proficiency and competence. Yes, you definitely have an advantage over those who are learning the skill for the first time.

Once you have mastered a skill, the best way to maintain and improve that mastery is practicing it. Hard work always pays off. If you want to excel in your job, you have to practice, practice, and practice more. Regular practice will make your mind and body ready to deliver excellence while performing the task. As Martha Graham rightly said, “Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

We all have seen sportsmen, musicians, singers, etc. performing complex and difficult tasks with ease and grace. This ease and grace is the product of thousands of hours of practice. We are astounded by the elegance, effortlessness, grace, poise, flamboyance, and flourish of Yehudi Menuhin playing the violin, A. R. Rahman composing a song, Sachin Tendulkar playing his favorite shots against the best bowlers in the world, Lionel Messi dribbling the ball past the toughest defenses and scoring, Stephen Devassy playing the keyboard, K. J. Yesudas, Mohammed Rafi, or Lata Mangeshkar singing complex notes and ragas. These magnificent men and women who are at the top of their respective professions do what they do with amazing ease and grace and make it seem effortless, because of thousands of hours they have spent practicing and perfecting each and every aspect of their craft.

All of us cannot perform like the top professionals as they are gifted and have polished their God given gift by hard work. Even though, we might not be able to perform as they can, we can become our best by working hard. When we are following the three requirements of achieving perfection and productivity—continuous learning, continuous improvement, and constant practice—we have a better chance of becoming highly productive and excellent in our jobs.

Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” So irrespective of what you do, chase perfection, but accept excellence. Consider the example of a writer.

A writer can master his craft by continuous learning, continuous improvement, and constant practice. She can improve her vocabulary, perfect her grammar, and learn how to use the different tools that will improve her productivity. She can read the books of famous writers and learn from them. She can attend writing workshops and learn from experts. She can continuously improve her skills by learning more words, learning the language better, learning the rules and then learning how to break the rules, becoming proficient in the use of tools like word processors, text analyzers, grammar checkers, etc. She can learn and memorize quotes, phrases and their correct usage, synonyms and antonyms, and so on. Then she can practice by writing daily without fail. Soon her writing will improve, her analytical and logical reasoning skills will develop, creativity and imagination will take wings, and productivity will increase. All these things will keep on improving as time goes by.

Can such a person who is continuously learning, improving, and practicing daily produce a perfect piece of fiction, poem, or prose? The answer is a definite no most of the times. In rare occasions even unaware to the writer, he will produce a perfect work. As William Hazlitt, the famous English writer, grammarian and philosopher, said, “Those who aim at faultless regularity will only produce mediocrity, and no one ever approaches perfection except by stealth, and unknown to themselves.”

So what is the advantage of all these hard work—learning, improvement and practice? The advantage is that you will become more productive. As you possess a good vocabulary, you need not waste time searching the dictionary and thesaurus for the right word. Since you know the grammar thoroughly, you will make fewer mistakes. Since you know the rules and how and when you can bend or break them your writing will improve. Your proficiency with modern technology and the tools will save you time and effort.

You still need to research your topics; you still need to think about the different viewpoints and arguments, you still need to write your first draft, you still need to edit and rewrite it again and again. But all these processes—researching, thinking, writing, editing, revising, and rewriting—will become easier as you master the craft. So every time you start a new project, you are becoming better at it as you are learning, improving, and practicing your craft. So chase perfection, but stop at excellence. You should decide when to stop as you are the one who should decide how excellent you should be.


  1. Paresh said,

    March 13, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Excellent! (I dare not say Perfect). Just went through the write-up once, will be back to absorb it better. 🙂

    Happy to see you back here. 🙂

  2. Maya said,

    March 13, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    Nice article Alexis. I like your standard of excellence. Do write more often…

  3. Vandana said,

    March 14, 2012 at 7:53 am

    Very insightful article,and I love the way you have interspersed it with thought provoking quotes. May I share one too? “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    Yes, I completely agree that the key actions are continuous learning, continuous improvement and continuous practice. Very wise advice, too, that while these qualities may not necessarily lead to perfection, they will surely result in productivity, which paves the way for excellence. A point to be noted by those who feel they are under appreciated – “But I worked so hard!”

    So what separates us ‘mere mortals’ from the top professionals? What line separates their productivity from their high level of excellence? I think it is their approach. God has gifted us all with talents. All the greats started off like all of us, most with a very simple childhood, with only the basic facilities available. But once they found out something they liked to do, they decided to pursue it with all their heart. While continuously learning, they maintained a self discipline that did not allow themselves to get distracted (as most others do); their continuous practice was always with a passion; as a result, the long hours of work put in never felt boring; their continuous improvement came from a love of the subject; they always looked for ways to better themselves. And every one of them is still humble enough to admit they are not ‘perfect’ and that there is still a long way to go. I admire these qualities the most – the passion and the hunger ( I am a huge fan of Roger Federer, btw 🙂 )

    Thank you, Alexis, for yet another wonderful article, please do write in more often. It’s great to see you back at your blog. I hope your absence was because of other commitments and not due to health concerns.

  4. TME said,

    March 14, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    I read the article as if I am listening to an orator. Wonderful post, Alexis. Do post more often.

  5. Bindu said,

    March 15, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Loved that last sentence – “You should decide when to stop as you are the one who should decide how excellent you should be”

    So often our standards are set to the tunes of others that we tend to bury what we want.

  6. Alexis Leon said,

    March 15, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Paresh: Thanks Paresh. I look forward to your detailed comments.

    Maya: Thank you Maya.

    Vandana: Thanks Vandana. I completely agree with your views and observations. My absence is a combination of other commitments and health problems.

    TME: Thanks TME. I will try to write more often.

    Bindu: Thanks Bindu. I agree with others setting standards for us; we often forget to live for ourselves !

  7. Paresh said,

    March 17, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Hi! Read the whole thing a few more times and felt I’m no man to make any further comments. 😛 For an average guy like me who leaves ‘Chasing Perfection’ for the next time and finishing the task at hand without much fuss. Sometimes, things just fall in place and the outcome makes me happy. 🙂 But, most of the times it is finding solace in the fact that there will be always a Next Time. 😛

  8. Sheeba said,

    March 22, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    I am a little bit scared of the terms ‘excellence’ n ‘perfection’. So, always my attempt is to find and bring out my best. If my best is not ‘excellent’, and if the situation demands ‘excellence’ from me to go ahead, of course I will try my level best to improve my best 🙂 very simple 🙂 But I feel very much uncomfortable to say that ‘I am trying to be excellent’..

    The word ‘perfect’ confuses me a lot..Doesn’t the norms of perfection vary from mind to mind? It is a nice subject to think about..

    Thanks a lot Alex, for your brilliant beautiful post. Congrats too.

  9. Alexis Leon said,

    April 4, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Paresh: Yes, there will always be a Next Time.

    Sheeba: Thanks Sheeba. All we can do is to give our best shot.

  10. S said,

    April 7, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Wishing you and your family A blessed and Happy Easter.
    May you be blessed with health, love and a lot of happiness……
    Be Well, be Happy!