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Pursuit of Excellence
The Alternative to Perfectionism
Don't worry—you don't have to give up your high standards.
As creators, we hear a lot of admonitions to avoid perfectionism: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and so on. I suspect that a lot of us respond to this advice as I do: I take it in, nod my head sagely—and go back to trying to make my work perfect. I mean, be honest: We do want our creations to be perfect, right? And so what would the alternative to perfectionism be?
Perhaps we could hope for an adaptive form of perfectionism, but research suggests that “healthy perfectionism” is an oxymoron. Perfectionism of any stripe is associated with negative mental health outcomes like anxiety, depression, and burnout. And, perversely—since perfectionism is all about producing the best possible results—a perfectionist orientation is also associated with decrements in performance. Even worse, perfectionism is especially harmful for creativity.
In other words: perfectionism’s pursuit of high standards comes at a cost. Is it possible to reach for those high standards without the cost?
It turns out that there is an actual, viable alternative to perfectionism, called excellencism. The researcher who devised this concept, University of Ottawa psychology professor Patrick Gaudreau, distinguishes the two in the following way:
Perfectionism is the relentless pursuit of extremely high and strict standards of perfection, along with a tendency to evaluate oneself according to those extremely high standards of perfection.
Excellencism is a tendency to aim and strive toward high, yet attainable standards, in an effortful and flexible manner. People who pursue excellence are satisfied once they reach it, and do not see the value of exceeding it.
It’s important to note that excellencism is not a watered-down version of perfectionism. It’s a qualitatively different mindset, and it produces qualitatively different results.
A recent study by Gaudreau and two colleagues found that participants who rated high on excellencism and low on perfectionism achieved much higher scores on a test of creative potential than those who rated high on perfectionism. The excellencists generated a greater number of responses to the creativity prompt than the perfectionists, and their responses were judged as more original than those produced by people pursuing perfection.
A reading of the small but growing scientific literature on excellencism turns up five distinct reasons why excellencism is such a productive way to approach our endeavors—and our creative endeavors in particular:
Reason 1: Excellencism is rooted in an accurate sense of reality and a capacity for flexibility, both of which are essential to creativity. The rigid and unrealistic mindset characteristic of perfectionism is antithetical to the spirit of creation.
Reason 2: Excellencism appears to protect against anxiety, stress, and burnout. It allows us to keep striving to meet high standards, without getting tripped up by the dark side of perfectionism.
Reason 3: Excellencism puts a bigger, healthier space between our work and ourselves—between what we do and who we are. One problem with perfectionism is that achieving perfection becomes tightly bound up with people’s sense of self: If my work is bad, I’m bad. Excellencism avoids this trap.
Reason 4: Excellencism allows us to savor rewarding experiences at every stage of the process. A study by Gaudreau and two coauthors found that perfectionists were only able to savor positive experiences when they achieved at the highest level. Savoring the good feelings associated with creating gives us emotional fuel to keep going when the creative process gets difficult.
Reason 5: Excellencism generates an upward spiral, with strength building upon strength. By contrast, Gaudreau has found that perfectionism often leads to a downward spiral, in which unrealistic standards for perfection collide with the imperfections of real life, leading to increased anxiety, leading to further impaired performance, and so on.