Excellence vs. Perfectionism: Notes on How to Play the Sport of the Day

11/22/2016 08:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it." ~Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
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I've written before about the time Serena Williams messed me up. It wasn't intentional. In fact, she had no idea that she was involved. One day I watched a video of her working out. I think it might have been this video. The day after I watched it, I was in the gym, at a performance boot camp. Kettle bell swings, box jumps and battling ropes, all of my favorite things. The thing is, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and once my braids were swinging around, there was a moment in which I met my own eye in the mirror and thought: I can go just as hard as Serena. So I went harder, and harder, and had an incredible workout. Pushed way past what I'd normally do.

It was fantastic.

Until the next day. And the day after. And the day after that. Days later, I was still so sore that I couldn't even rotate my trunk enough to look over my shoulder and parallel park. Thanks, Serena.

I love this story, though, because it surfaces the difference between excellence and perfectionism.

Perfect is the enemy of done.

Perfect, in fact, is not real. Perfect is the enemy, period.

Perfectionism is rigid, hard and creates shame most of the time, because almost all of the time, we will fall short of perfect.

But excellence? Excellence is doing your best. Excellence is about pushing to the limits of your capacity, and then growing capacity. But excellence is not hard or rigid. It's juicy and energized. It's fun.

In sport, we know that our minds give up and will tell us to stop way before our muscles are tapped out. And knowing this allows us to push harder, to know that our capacity is greater than it might feel like it is, when we're in the midst of a crunch.

In sport, we know that, ultimately, it's all just a game. The stakes are not life and death. But we still take the game seriously. We train, we visualize, we practice and we pour ourselves into the game. But we have fun, too. We play the game, we don't work it or grind it or dread it.

We also know that one way to help keep our minds in the game, and to override the message to stop, is to see inspiring others, to hear and watch their stories, or even to hear them cheer us on. Excellence happens when others coach, inspire or keep us accountable. Perfectionism is often self-imposed, and often isolating. Excellence connects us.

Excellence is inspired. One of my heroes is Daniel from the Bible, who was favored because of his devotion to God and also because "an excellent spirit was within him". Inspiration means to be animated by the spirit of something, to literally breathe in a spirit. Daniel's spirit of excellence emboldened him to hold himself to different, higher standards, with discipline and leadership, than the culture and community in which he lived, without critiquing or judging anyone else. Excellence is inspired and inspiring, and it keeps you running your own race, minding your own business, and being your best.

Excellence was my workout, at crazy next levels, inspired by one of my other heroes, Serena. It was fun, exciting, juicy and alive in the moment. Years afterwards, I recall that workout as one of my favorites ever. (Side note: this was my #1 Favorite Workout Of All Time.)

Because excellence is about you doing your best, as I've matured, I've also realized that excellence involves all the self-care, nourishing and beauty that helps me operate at peak whatever I'm focused on: peak performance, peak prosperity, peak fun, peak joy, peak fun. Excellence requires knowing that "your best" will be different on different days. That it--that I--will ebb and flow. It requires rest. I developed and received more and more of my spirit of excellence when I learned that there are different seasons for different sorts of work: seasons for envisioning, for sowing, for cultivating and for harvesting, in every single area of life. Perfectionism drives us relentlessly to go harder, harder, harder. Excellence pulls out our long-term best, inspires us to build a beautiful vision, but with grace and with even some ease and softness around the journey it'll take to get there, and the daily, weekly, monthly ebb and flow in the power, force and direction of our efforts to build it.

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer coaches us through the process of learning to rewire our natural tendency to tense up and harden around emotional pain. When we learn to soften and allow it to pass through us, and allow past hurts and pain to come up and burn out, we gradually dissolve our touchy subjects, resolve unfinished business, and live into a place of freedom from emotional triggers and thorns. We learn to be unconditional in our love for life, love for people, exuberance and general joy.

But being able to exist in a state of grounded exuberance, regardless of your external conditions, does not mean that you don't address problems or challenges when they come up. Singer says that when you get untethered, instead, the challenges and issues that inevitably arise in your life don't read as problems. They read as the sport of the day. Your sport of the day, your game for the day, becomes how to have that challenging conversation with an employee, or how to deal with the trouble your kid is stirring (/raises hand).

For me, the sport of the day is often how to translate my gut intuition into conversations and interactions that open new possibilities for transformation in my clients' businesses, within their teams, or even with their customers.

The sport of the day is not always to fix or change conditions, and it's never to fix or change other people. The game is how to be who you want to be and live into what you want to create, which sometimes requires being responsive to current realities without getting entangled or stuck in them.

I've grown over time to go from seeing my past dysfunctional patterns are cringeworthy problems I wish I'd never had to seeing them as the sport of the day. So now, for example, when someone close to me starts stirring up drama, I note my wobble between enabling them and abandoning them, and I spot the opportunity as a treasure to play a new, lighter game: the game of finding that middle path for how we relate today.

And I know--I've discovered--that the sport of the day, and my energy for playing it, is fresh and new every single day. You're not bound or limited by the game you played yesterday anymore than the matches she's lost have stopped Serena from soaring to victory the next day, or even later the same day. She's no joke. And neither are yo.

We don't play the sport of the day with perfection, or with perfectionism. Because, at the risk of belaboring the point, perfect is not real. We can play it with excellence, though. And we can have fun doing it. When you learn to play the sport of the day and to play it with excellence, it's so much fun that you'll never want to go back to the time when perfect was your aim, even if you are too sore to parallel park the next day.

P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it's been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. But I wrote this post on Day 19 of the Challenge. I'll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.