Perfection may be a myth – but it’s worth trying for

Over the years I have enjoyed a number of exchanges with Kristina Groves, a world champ speed skater with 4 Olympic medals, where we have discussed the value of technique. We freely admit that we were completely dedicated (obsessed?) to perfecting it and that parking our brains on it was often the only thing that helped us to avoid realizing how hard we were pushing ourselves and how much pain our bodies were in as we were training or racing.

The idea of perfection has popped up in a few blogs I’ve seen recently and, for the most part, everyone seems to agree that the quest for it can be, and I’ll paraphrase –  distracting. In a mentor message to the 2012 Team and in the Power of More I shared my ideas on perfection and I thought I’d bring them to the surface again. Here, from the section of my book on Preparation, is an excerpt that discusses the myth of perfection;

To achieve more, critical analysis is essential. This is true not just in sport but in sales, artistic performances, and even our relationships. We want to know how we are doing so that we can adjust and correct as necessary. Athletes and performers can become hypercritical of their training because they are striving for the perfect performance.

If you ask athletes right after their competition how they did, they will likely be able to give you a list of things, however obvious or minute, that they would like to have done better. It’s not very often that they will tell you all the things that they did right; that’s just the nature of the beast.

Even Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who earned an incredible seven perfect-10 scores at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, is quick to question whether perfection even exists. In a 2009 interview with Simon Barnes of the Sunday Times, she was quite clear that her beam performance, credited as being her best routine at the Olympics, was anything but perfect. “I remember that sometimes I was a bit off,” she said. “I felt it during the routine. I told myself, ‘No, I can’t make a mistake, because this is the Olympic Games.’ It was not perfect, I had done it better in training.” (She had become so hypercritical of herself that she went on to say, “It was a mistake, but only I knew it. It didn’t show; you can look at the routine now, you can see it doesn’t show.”)

Perfection may be something we strive for, but we have to accept that it’s almost impossible to achieve. The type of person who has the ambition to be perfect will most likely believe that there is always a bit more to be done to achieve it. The curiosity to discover what that bit more is, and to be able to perform it on demand, comes from our ambitious drive and clear goal setting. It is what drives us toward improved performance. We are constantly satisfied and unsatisfied.  

There is no plateau ahead of us that when we arrive will our lives be made easier. Why? Because in a healthy and fun way, when we reach our next or even ‘ultimate’ level we can see what more can be done. Achieving one goal often reveals a pathway to the next one and this is how perfection eludes us.

I remember a quote from another detail-focused athlete, Veronica Brenner, Olympic silver medalist, Freestyle Skiing/Aerials  “If I were to have waited for the perfect coach, the perfect training and the perfect day I would never have gotten anything done.”

Believe in perfection; prepare towards it, but don’t wait for it.

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