Don’t Confuse Excellence with Perfection

For a long time, one of my favorite corporate taglines was Lexus’ “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” The word relentless invokes passion and commitment, which we should all have when working toward a business or personal goal, and if you’re going to set the bar high, why not perfection?

This past spring, however, I confronted the “Why not perfection?” question head on, after a Little League game where my son had gone 3 for 4 at the plate, plus made some very nice defensive plays to help his team win the game — yet all he could focus on during the car ride home was the one strikeout.

After a lot of back and forth discussion, and not really getting through to him, I finally said, “If perfection is your goal, then you’re always going to be disappointed,” especially in baseball, where failing 7 out of 10 times at the plate is considered excellent.

I’m in the middle seat flying home tonight, between two sleeping passengers, and I’m thinking about everything I need to do at work this week – and the dark cloud that has been hanging over my head for months: a research project I’ve been preparing since April, but every time I review the scope and questionnaire, I find another reason to work on it some more, another reason to be unsatisfied with it, another reason to set the bar higher.

Why not perfection? Because pursuing it, especially relentlessly…

… may lead you to view anything short of perfection as failure, which is not only a false measure, but also blinds you to what you have actually accomplished, and deprives you of enjoying and appreciating those accomplishments.

… will keep you at the starting line indefinitely, while everybody else moves ahead, working on their imperfections along the way, and leaving you so far behind, you may never catch up.

… sets the bar so high, so far out, that no matter how hard you work, or how much time you spend going after it, you never seem to get any closer – like pursuing the horizon line in an endless, barren desert…your energy and drive, depleted.

“Don’t confuse excellence with perfection,” I told my son, words of advice that I repeat to myself tonight.

Excellence almost always falls short of perfection, and it’s that gap that motivates us to improve, that inspires us to innovate, that humbles us and strengthens our character.

Perfection, when it occurs, is a fleeting moment – like pitching a perfect game in baseball. Pursuing excellence, however, is a never-ending journey, with milestones along the way to guide us and motivate us, but not so far apart or high up that we never reach them.

Earlier today, Apple introduced its new iPhones and its much-anticipated Apple Watch. Was Apple striving for perfection or excellence with those products? You’ll find the answer in a Bloomberg Businessweek article published last week titled, “Apple’s iPhone 6 First Responders.” Here’s an excerpt:

As Apple prepares to unveil the iPhone 6 on Sept. 9, engineers are toiling in secrecy to make sure everything works properly. Their task won’t end when the phone goes on sale. As customers line up to buy the device around the world, Apple employees will show up at work to learn how they screwed up—and fix it.

Within hours of a new phone’s release, couriers start bringing defective returns from Apple’s retail stores to the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. In a testing room, the same engineers who built the iPhone try to figure out the problem…The program, created in the late 1990s, is called early field failure analysis, or EFFA, and it’s about as fun as it sounds. The idea is to keep easily resolved problems from becoming punch lines for late-night comics. Often, they jury-rig a hardware fix, then coordinate a solution across Apple’s global supply chain. Sometimes the problems can’t be solved quickly—remember Apple Maps leading people astray.

I still like the Lexus tagline, but I believe they only got it half right. Be relentless in your pursuit, but of excellence, not perfection.