How to Strive for Excellence Not Perfection

I want to challenge you and your ministry to add one more resolution to your list for this new year:

Strive for excellence, not perfection.

Yeah, yeah, yeah — I know — this is nothing new. But how do you know if you’re doing it right? Last fall, Dr. Brené Brown was a guest on the Tim Ferris Show, and part of the conversation included three key distinctions between healthy striving for excellence and unhealthy perfectionism.

Connection: Open or Guarded

The first distinction is your openness to connection. Brené says that perfectionism is ultimately a defense mechanism, summarizing the perfectionist’s perspective as, “If I live perfect, love perfect, work perfect, and accomplish perfectly, I can reduce or minimize shame, blame, criticism, and judgment.”

Perfectionists only attempt things they know they can do. They only share the parts of themselves that will receive positive responses. It is ironic that because authenticity is such a buzzword in the church world, sharing a socially acceptable flaw or two may actually function the same way.

Those who strive for excellence still want to do things well, but they are open to challenges. They maintain appropriate boundaries, but this includes having a core group of people with whom they can be vulnerable.

Gut Check: Do you have a feeling of distance in your relationships? Do you feel like your ministry can address its true issues? Why or why not?

Motivation: Inward or Outward

The second distinction is the source of your motivation. Brené explains that perfectionists are driven by outward sources like what other’s will think, while those striving for excellence are inwardly motivated.

Adapted slightly, perfectionism in the church seeks the praise of our members, the admiration and/or jealousy of other pastors and churches, and the attention of the world for things other than the Gospel.

On the other hand, healthy striving is motivated by a desire to bring God glory and a sense of stewardship — making the most of the resources and opportunities we have been given.

Gut Check: What accomplishment from last year are you most proud of and why? What opportunity in the coming year are you most excited about and why?

Focus: Present or Future

The third distinction is your temporal focus. Tim Ferriss noted that frustrated perfectionists he knows from the start up world are always focused on the future, while those who are striving for excellence have the ability to be present in the moment.

Perfectionists feel the immense pressure of what’s next. If they succeeded, they need to keep succeeding. If they don’t succeed, they need future perfection to solve the current problems.

Those who are striving for excellence still have goals and plans for the future, but they value the present. They are willing and able to experience both victory and defeat. This is not only emotionally healthy, but it allows them to reflect, learn, and grow.

Gut Check: Do you regularly practice the disciplines of prayer and Sabbath? Do you feel constantly behind where you should be? Why or why not?

One Last Thought: Your Family and Friends Need You

Building on Tim’s idea in the last point, Brené wondered aloud if this were a factor in why so many successful and competitive people struggle in their personal lives.

Work/church provides an unending supply of goals. Leaders are often judged by how well they cast vision and drive growth. Relationships with family and friends are not achievement oriented. Relationships are built and strengthened by openness to connection, an inward desire to know and be known, and presence.

Your ability to strive for excellence while keeping perfectionism in check has the potential to be a game changer both at work and at home this year.

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