Excellencism: an alternative to perfectionism
In an article in The Washington Post, Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience argues against perfectionism. A perfectionist herself, she writes, “The standards to which perfectionists hold themselves are unrealistic, overly demanding and often impossible to achieve. And when perfectionists fail to achieve perfection? We beat ourselves up with harsh self-criticism and are less able to bounce back and learn from mistakes. We’re also unlikely to celebrate our achievements or take pride in improving on our personal best. To a perfectionist, it’s all or nothing — you can be a winner or you can be an abject, worthless failure, with nothing in between.”
The burden of perfectionism
Dennis-Tiwary describes what research shows on perfectionism: “Research is unequivocal — there is little upside to perfectionism. The relentless pursuit of flawlessness can lead to low self-worth, depressive and anxiety disorders, high stress in the face of failure, and even suicidality. As a result, perfectionists often end up achieving much less than they aspire to because they hold back, procrastinate and even stop taking on challenges altogether — because it’s better to not have entered the race than to have spun out in ignominy.”
She then presents an alternative to perfectionism: excellencism, the pursuit of excellence. The term excellencism was proposed by the psychologist Patrick Gaudreau. It means striving for excellence while allowing yourself to make mistakes and while staying focused on learning.
Compared to most people, excellencists have:
- higher levels of healthy anxiety
- more conscientiousness
- higher intrinsic motivation
- greater progress in life goals
- more feelings of positive well-being.
Compared to perfectionists, excellencists have:
- lower rates of burnout
- less intense procrastination
- less prolonged depression, debilitating anxiety and suicidality
The author has the following recommendations:
- Pick one upcoming activity that you tend to get perfectionistic about. It could be personal or work related, or it might be about your appearance.
- Make a list of what perfect looks like to you.
- Look at the list and pick something that you will allow to be less than perfect. Perhaps it’s just one thing, perhaps it’s several. But pick something that you can really let go of.
- Practice these steps first in one, then in multiple areas of your life. You'll soon find that striving for pretty good will get you to something that's still excellent—and without the burdens and burnout of perfectionism.
In psychology, the distinction is sometimes made between a negative and a positive form of perfectionism. The negative form is self-critical perfectionism, the form Tracy Dennis-Tiwary talks about in her article.
The positive form of perfectionism is striving for perfection from a personal standard to perform as well as possible and to be their 'best self' appear to feel positive while pursuing their goals and appear to make better progress towards their goals (read more).
Positive perfectionists choose goals they find personally valuable, negative perfectionists choose goals they feel obligated to. The definition of positive perfectionism as described here sounds good to me, but I think that excellencism is a more appropriate term.
Achieving perfection is impossible in almost everything we do (perhaps with the exception of solving a math problem). Striving for perfection is therefore almost never a good idea in my opinion. Achieving excellence is possible. The pursuit of excellence is therefore realistic.
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