Thursday, August 2, 2007

Perfection vs Excellence, Part I: Willing to Be Wrong by Michelle Kunz

If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward. -- Thomas A. Edison

If you're creative, if you can think independently, if you can articulate passion, if you can override the fear of being wrong, then your company needs you now more than it ever did. And now your company can no longer afford to pretend that isn't the case.
-- Hugh Macleod, How To Be Creative

As a recovering perfectionist I was given a list of distinctions between perfection and excellence about a year ago. After reading Slow Leadership's post on perfectionism, I thought it might be of value to my readers to explore the subtle differences brought to our awareness by the anonymous author in a series devoted to the topic.

Perfection is being right.
Excellence is willing to be wrong.

As in all things related to perfectionism, the idea starts out with the best of intentions. Isn't it good to be right? We have all been through the academic system, and being right guarantees high test scores, perhaps entrance to the college of your dreams, nailing that interview. Some situations absolutely depend upon being right; a heart surgeon cannot fool around with being wrong, nor can an airline pilot or anyone else in whose hands we place our lives.

But for most of us, being right or wrong is rarely a matter of life and death, and it is here that perfectionism can begin to take hold and place us into a rigidity death grip from which all our creativity and freshness is squeezed if we do not exercise a high level of self awareness. Whenever being right becomes the most important thing and life/death is not at stake, we are stuck.

In their book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, authors Allan Mallinger and Jeannette DeWyze discuss some of the problems with a preoccupation with being right:

  • difficulty in making even relatively simple choices (what if I don't get it right?)
  • relationship damage and erosion of trust (why can't you get it right?)
  • procrastination (I have to get it right, so I need to get ready first)
  • worry and stress (did I get it right?)
  • black and white thinking (there is only one way to get it right)
  • score keeping (you against me or me against myself or general scorekeeping)

And the list goes on.

Sadly, many leaders are extremely caught up in getting things right. And for good reason. There is a lot at stake. They have people to answer to above them, and people looking to them for answers below. In all directions there are people watching and the pressure feels tremendous. No wonder we so very badly want to get it right.

So where is the value in being willing to be wrong?

The value lies in giving up control over things we have no control over to begin with. Control is a mighty word. It sounds like something we all should have and want more of. But when we look realistically at what we have control over, the truth is rather uncomfortable. What we have control over is what we choose to do and what we choose to think about: how we choose to respond to our emotional state, how we choose to respond to others, what we choose to do with any given moment in our lives, and what thoughts we choose to spend time and energy on.

Everything else is out of our direct control. So when we make a decision (something we have control over) and things don't work out because the economy changed, the company did something differently than we had hoped, someone was out sick and we got behind schedule, someone quit, someone else didn't get their work in on time, we were out sick, or maybe someone gave us incorrect data, we end up with a wrong decision, but none of the reasons were within our control.

Yes, we may have to answer to all the people looking to us for answers. Great leaders learn the art of admitting they were wrong with humility, dignity and grace. They learn how to move the energy forward in spite of being wrong. They know that being wrong means a chance to learn something that moves you one step closer to true creative genius.

Which is much, much better than simply getting it right.

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