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Excellence Versus Perfection (Or Is It Procrastination?)


Would you rather be an excellent mother or a perfect one?  On "Desperate Housewives" Bree (surname replaced for each series apparently) is the perfect mother – she bakes, she irons, she probably ran the PTA and her kids turned out… er, well certainly not perfect.  The problem with being perfect is that sometimes, whomever we're supposedly being perfect for, gets sick and tired of the sacrifices we, and they, have to make for the idea of perfection and quite rightly feels that they are not as important to us as the perfect Christmas/dinner/holiday.


I never want to try out new choreography in my Zumba ® class, because it will rarely be perfect.  The routines that go well in rehearsal will often go worst of all in practice, don’t ask me why.  But in order to do anything new we must accept that we will fail.  It's just as well that kids learn to walk before they can talk otherwise we might talk them out of it.  "You'll hurt yourself", "you'll look silly", but none of these hold back babies from the excitement of walking like a grown up.


I don't know about you but I failed my first driving test, dismally.  I was gutted, but my teacher was not that surprised.  At the time I was annoyed and I wish she had let me pull out, but you book in for the test and you go for it, which was her attitude.  I actually stopped driving for 3 years, and then I had to start from scratch again.  If I had kept going it would probably have only taken me another 6 lessons or so to be able to pass.  I think learning to drive was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, but most of us will get through it no matter what because we see it as a necessary skill.


What about the things that not everyone can do?  I recently went to see an international gymnastic competition.  Just the warm up made my jaw drop, but when they got started I found the scoring impossible to understand until I read the helpful guide to the new scoring system (it used to just go up to 10.0).  It goes like this; there is a score for difficulty and a score for execution.  The score for execution goes up to 10.0 so if you perform a routine flawlessly you would get a 10.0 and then you can get extra points based on the difficulty of the routine – now this number can be as high as the judges want it to go – yes, the new score for a gymnast is actually infinite.  So a gymnast who undertakes a seriously difficult routine, but does it with some small errors may well score much higher than a gymnast who does a simple routine flawlessly.  (I always think – there are few rewards for perfect washing up.)


I was also really taken with some notes in the guide on the gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who is one of the most influential gymnasts of all time.  In 1976, competing at the age of 14 in the 1976 Olympics she was the first person ever to achieve a perfect score (which was 10.0 at the time).  The scoreboards didn't even go up to 10.0 so her score had to be shown as 1.0.  (How funny to be looking up at that!)  Of course that's the headline, but a little bit of digging and I found two things that I found incredibly interesting about Nadia Comaneci.  If you look on YouTube you will find clips of her on the Balance Beam winning gold, on the Uneven Bars winning gold, on the Floor winning gold and bronze, performances which also led to gold and silver in the All-Around (taking all the events into consideration), now go to YouTube and type in "Vault Nadia Comaneci".  It's a different story.  Her Vault is not perfect.  Which makes her an imperfect All-Around gymnast, but she still won the gold because her other events were so strong.  So, I'm thinking, in training there had to be a point surely when a decision had to be made; throw everything into bringing up the Vault to the same level as the other events, or let go and focus on the others.  It's something I think we all have to decide all the time, do I work on that subject that I really can't stand or move on to the things I am really good at?


Sometimes the difference between excellence and perfection is quite challenging to see, so here's a slightly easier one.  The iPhone is arguably one of the most innovative gadgets ever.  Is it excellent?  Absolutely.  Is it perfect?  Absolutely not.  Will it ever be perfect?  No, because every time the glitches are worked out new aspects are added which are flawed.  How do I know when to move on and add new choreography to my class?  When I can do it all easily.  I need the fear and excitement of things going wrong to make it interesting.  Because then, when it's gone exhilaratingly right or embarrassingly wrong I can return to the "home" of the safe old tracks I love and enjoy them all the more.


But, I told you there were two interesting things about Nadia Comaneci.  In 1979 at a world competition she competed against doctors' orders in the optional team competition (having already completed the compulsory section).  The Romanian team won gold for the team.  But, Nadia went on to have surgery on her hand.  She won gold on the Balance Beam in the 1980 Olympics, tied for gold on the Floor, won silver for All-Around and her team won the silver medal.  She retired a year later at age 19.  Maybe this has nothing to do with the idea of excellence versus perfection, I'd love to see that movie, that decision, that question – did she decide or was the decision made for her?  I'd argue that excellence is performing when you are 100%, excellence is about a life long career, but I'm sure I could find a hundred examples that would make me change my mind.


The real question is, what is excellence for you?  What is perfection?  Have you ever cancelled a date because you couldn't find the perfect outfit, or because you didn't feel 100% confident?  Have you ever refused to sit an exam or take a driving test because you were scared of failing or because you wanted to feel like you could at least get 90% right?  Have you ever bought a cake because you were worried if you made one it wouldn't look perfect?  Have you ever spent hours formatting a report or rewriting a text when it was a pretty poor excuse for an honest conversation?  Have you ever held yourself back or not sent something out because it was not 100% perfect.  Just think if Apple had done that there wouldn't be an iPhone, or all the followers on the market.


I used to work in document production, this means that I could literally spend hours, days even formatting a document.  I've produced ten books now, and each time the temptation is to keep writing, keep rewriting, keep checking, keep formatting instead of pushing the "Publish" button.  It's worse with my website.  But the question I ask myself (and this is much easier when someone else is standing behind me asking me to make changes to their document) is "Is it making it better?" or is it just tweaking?  I used to work with a director who, every time we were doing the most boring studio headshot, no matter how it was set up would always, just before we were going to shoot, change the shot by a fraction.  It was infuriating, pointless and added… nothing.  There comes a point when "perfectionism" is just procrastination.  Yes it's important to take time preparing a wall for painting, selecting just the right colour, putting some nice music on the stereo but there comes a point when you have to start painting.  Even if it is just so, halfway through, you can see that the colour is completely wrong and you need to start again.  It's called progress.  Even if it's just progressing to the next failure, to the next way of not doing something, to finding out that your product doesn't have a market, or that my class really can't stand that song I've been lovingly choreographing ("It's the kind of song my daughter listens to.") so that you can move on to the next track, the next colour, the next book, the next relationship or the next bright idea.


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