There have been plenty of times in my career when I have been asked the question “when is enough, enough” as I was attempting to inspire the team to do more. It happened again a few weeks back in a meeting when a colleague challenged a position I was taking around my pursuit of excellence vs. trying to be perfect. A second colleague and long time mentor followed up by asking if I thought I should consider “lightening up a little”. For me personally, I walk a very fine line here between ripe and rotten, something I have struggled with since we started our Values Based Leadership journey 10 years ago.
A big part of my story was growing up in a small house that upon entering one would discover a visual jewel box. Everything was always in its place with rooms seemingly unused given the cleanliness of the space and almost new condition of its contents. All the walls downstairs and up were gleaming white and the outside lawn dare I say perfectly green and manicured. To be clear and in no uncertain terms Dad did have his rules of the house. “Thou shall not bump up against the wall and leave a mark” and “thou shall pick up the leaves that have fallen from the Magnolia tree onto the grass on a daily basis” were a few of the memorable ones. This pursuit of excellence, or was it perfection, extended beyond the physical space and into our lives, our behaviors and our habits. We practiced everything we chose to participate in with relentless rigor, whining was never an option and quitting out of the question. And Dad pressed on.
It may come as no surprise to the behavioral experts out there that today; the grass (or should I say turf) surrounding my house is perfectly green. The trees on the property are pruned annually and cars in the driveway washed weekly. My wife and I workout (with relentless rigor) on a daily basis and enjoy our egg whites for breakfast and grilled chicken salads for dinner. So what is it that we are chasing, and in my case inspiring others to work toward? Is it excellence, a healthy version of perfectionism consisting of high levels of perfectionistic strivings and low levels of perfectionist concerns1? Patterns associated with this dimension include more self-esteem, driving energy that leads to great achievement, and a commitment that pushes people to maintain an impressive work ethic while deriving pleasure from their efforts. The opposite of this is unhealthy perfectionism where high levels of perfectionist concerns are present. These perfectionists desire perfection, fear imperfection and feel other people will like them only if they are perfect. The biggest difference between the two is in the meaning given to the mistakes. Those who strive for excellence can take mistakes as incentive to work harder. Unhealthy perfectionists consider their mistakes a sign of personal defects. For these people, perfectionism is felt as a burden.
Along with his position on excellence Aristotle had an interesting point of view on moral behavior commonly know as “the golden mean”; that just right place. With this he said, “moral behavior is the mean between the two extremes – at one end is excess, at the other end is deficiency. Find a moderate position between the two extremes and you will be acting morally”. Was this Aristotle’s way of helping us all to walk that fine line between ripe and rotten? Was it a message to me about maintaining a high striving and low concerns disposition on my personal quest for excellence? What I do believe is Dad must be a student of Aristotle’s. He was (and still is today) an excellent Dad.
1 See Wikipedia “Perfectionism, (psychology)”