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.