Quality of Life: The pursuit of excellence vs. perfectionism

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Quality of LifeNot long ago, I had the opportunity (courtesy of the flu) to take some time to rest. While I was a bit frustrated at my lack of productivity while I was sick, I was also cognizant of the fact that resting is something that should be an inherent part of life, not just something that happens during a viral smackdown.

During that period of forced self-care, my activity level tracked that of my energy. I went from sleeping and watching television to reading, and finally, to working. I wanted to share a few things that I learned while in sick mode.

First, I learned that on Saturday mornings, you can watch nonstop reruns of “The Rifleman” on the AMC channel. That’s right, Chuck Connors, former professional basketball and baseball player, starring as Lucas McCain, proves repeatedly (as in every Saturday for about four consecutive hours) that good always triumphs over evil. If you are a straight shooter in life (pun intended) and behave with honesty and forthrightness, everything will work out in the end. It was a good lesson back in 1960, and it still is.

Second, I had occasion to do quite a bit of reading — and, one of the books that was especially interesting was “The Great Eight: How to be Happy (even when you have every right to be miserable),” written by Scott Hamilton, Olympic gold medalist. In the book, Hamilton chronicles his life, first discussing how skating helped him to overcome a debilitating, chronic childhood illness — and, later, how his training helped him as he battled cancer. He talks about the importance of attitude when facing life’s obstacles. One statement that stayed with me was his observation that, “Nobody learns to skate without falling down,” and that the important thing is to keep getting back up. He made the point several times that everyone who skates, falls at one time or another. What makes the difference between a good figure skater and a mediocre one is that the good skater, the great skater, keeps getting back up and trying again. There is no room for a defeatist attitude. Nobody is a perfect skater all the time, but with persistence, he or she can become great.

In his book, Hamilton lauded his parents, who taught him to work hard (to get back up when he fell), to prepare as well as he could, to do his best, and then let go of worry about the outcome.

The important thing is to keep a positive attitude and strive to do your best. Many people give up when they can’t be perfect all the time — and an all-or-nothing attitude can be detrimental to a person’s performance and self-esteem.

This made me think about the difference between the pursuit of excellence and perfectionism.

So often, I see people who become victims of perfectionism. “If I’m not perfect, I’m dirt.” A perfectionist attitude can lead to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem — the very characteristics that a person seeks to avoid by being a “perfectionist.”

If you do any research at all on perfectionism in the legal industry, you find that it permeates the profession. In fact, perfectionism is listed as one of the common personality traits among lawyers, along with self-reliance, ambition and competitiveness.

It is important to note that striving for success is something totally different than perfectionism. It is good to try to excel at your endeavors — to do one’s work thoroughly, accurately and responsibly — and to seek to do your best. Setting high standards for yourself is admirable — the motivation is a positive one. The pursuit of perfection, however, is not only unrealistic, it usually comes from a more negative motivation — that is, a motivation to avoid punishment or criticism. That isn’t healthy, and neither are the accompanying worries about mistakes, and self-flagellation for not reaching an unattainable goal. Nobody is perfect. Everyone falls. But taking a professional spill does not have to mean overall failure — it just means that you must get back up and try again. You can still do a good job and be successful even if you aren’t perfect.•


Jonna Kane MacDougall is assistant dean for external affairs and alumni relations at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law. A professional career/life coach, MacDougall can be contacted at 317-775-1804 or [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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