Canadian Contractor

Steve Maxwell   

Perfectionism versus excellence

"Don't spend your time lookin' around for something you want that can't be found."

The following was first published in the print edition of Canadian Contractor, March/April 2019, by Steve Maxwell, tools editor. It is part of his series, “The Inner Life of a Contractor.” For more from Steve Maxwell, go to

By Steve Maxwell

Sooner or later, in more ways than one, staying sane in this life involves mastering mental gymnastics. I think this is especially true for contractors. You’re involved in a tricky industry with lots of moving parts. If you’re a professional who values quality, there’s also a chance you battle with perfectionism. I used to, but more than 25 years ago I discovered a trick for turning the negative effects of perfectionism into something positive and productive.

Wikipedia defines perfectionism as a personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluation and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. On the surface, this doesn’t sound too bad, does it? After all, if you want to run a successful contracting business, you need to set high standards, right? You certainly need to be concerned about what your clients think about your work if you want future business. It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect high standards from yourself and the trades you hire. The problem with all this is the unspoken reality that nothing is ever good enough for the perfectionist. That’s the part that drives perfectionists (and the people around them) crazy.

The way to harness the power of perfectionism without it making you batty comes down to a small but crucial mental flip-flop. Master this flip flop and it’ll convert damaging perfectionism into something I call the “pursuit of excellence.” Just don’t be fooled. The pursuit of excellence looks and sounds like perfectionism on the surface, but it has one feature that makes all the difference.

The problem with perfectionism is that nothing can ever be absolutely perfect in this world. That’s why perfectionism is a game no one can win.  In Disney’s classic 1967 movie The Jungle Book, Baloo the bear offers some powerful anti-perfectionist philosophy in the song “The Bare Necessities.”

And don’t spend your time lookin’ around

For something you want that can’t be found…

Absolute perfection simply does not exist in this dirty old world of ours, and the root of the distress of the perfectionist is believing the lie that perfection is possible. It’s not. Rejecting this lie is the first step towards relief, but there’s something even more important.

The thing that delivered me from perfectionism is the understanding that I need to have two states of mind whenever I’m working on any task.  The first state involves striving for the best results I can possibly get while I’m working. This is identical to perfectionism and it’s necessary for high quality results and improving skills. Nothing good ever happens without effort, and nothing great ever happens without high standards. The thing is, at some point, you need to adopt a certain measure of surrender. You need to do that mental flip-flop I mentioned. If you remember that absolute perfection is impossible, it’ll help you kick into “satisfied mode.” This is the fundamental feature of the pursuit of excellence. Try your guts out within the time, budget, conditions and skills you’ve got, then flip-flop into a perspective of surrender as you approach completion.

Without this mental flip-flop, all perfectionists do one of two things. Either they go crazy, or they abandon the pursuit of excellence altogether because it’s too painful to do anything else. Both outcomes are negative and unnecessary. If you’re a hard-core perfectionist, you’ll find the “flip-flop of sanity” difficult at first. Keep applying this mental discipline to your life and it’ll become your new and healthy habit. Trust me, if you’re a perfectionist, the results are definitely worth the trouble. cc


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