Excellence vs Perfection

January 18, 2022

I have been paging through a little journal of mine recently. I got this little book around the year 2018, and I carried it with me everywhere. It’s the first time I kind of started to embrace my voice in the creative sphere of life. Paging through, 4 years later, I realise that a lot of the things I pondered and explored are still relevant to me today. For some, this is good, but for others, I probably should’ve had that lesson sink in by now.

One of these lessons is the exploration of the difference between excellence and perfection.

Two sides of the same coin?

How often do we say it? “You know I’ll never be happy with it, I’m such a perfectionist.” or you know, something or other to that effect. It gets said in conversation, we all chuckle along and then swiftly move on. I used to feel like that quite often with regards to my art. I was a perfectionist, well… let’s be honest, still am sometimes. If I didn’t do it exactly the way it ought to be done, then it would be crumpled up and thrown in the dustbin. In other cases, it would just remain unfinished in a sketchbook somewhere never to be seen again.

I never really saw this as a problem, because surely perfectionism and excellence are two sides to the same coin? I should bring my best every time, right? It has to be done exactly right. If anything is to mean anything, there is a right and a wrong way, and if I’m wrong then, it’s just not worth anything.

It took me a few years to realise that there really is a difference between the two. They are not two sides of the same coin, they are actually two completely different currencies.

Perfectionism

I think perfectionism is something that crept into my life at quite a young age already. At a very young, 9 years old, I started doing external exams for piano. This was a great privilege and according to my teachers, I wasn’t half bad. The thing is though, there’s nothing quite like creative expression – no matter the form – to bring out whatever insecurities you have.

I was an incredibly shy child, so to be able to play and perform in front of others, even my parents, it had to be perfect. It was so bad, that even when I practiced at home and my parents would comment on how well I played, I would get incredibly frustrated, because they are obviously just being “nice”. There was a mistake, so it wasn’t good enough yet. I didn’t want people to lie to me. Honestly, the piece would be 95% there, an improvement of the 85% prior, but it still wasn’t good enough. Their compliments and encouragement felt like a lie.

It’s not a bad thing to practice hard and to work to do well. In fact, it is a very important part of life. We only ever get better by practicing. But when we’re unable to recognise the little victories or celebrate the moments of brief success, then I’m not sure it’s so healthy anymore. We have now crossed over to perfectionism.

It doesn’t really matter what your creative expression is, whether you paint or draw, do ceramics or make spreadsheets, garden or take photos, there’s something about creating something that stirs up a fear of being seen. A fear of not being good enough. I truly believe that the desire for perfection is a distant cousin of imposter syndrome.

Because if it’s not perfect, they might know that I’m not either.

Excellence

I listened to a talk that Jenn Johnson did a few years ago. She spoke at a creative conference and shared a bit about excellence and perfection. Now, if you don’t know, Jenn Johnson is a singer who has led stadiums in worship. She, along with her husband Brian, head up Bethel Music in Redding, California.

She shared a story of a worship set she led one Sunday evening. During this set, she missed a few notes, had a few blunders and at one point even kind of tripped over one of the mic cables… it was a mess. After each set they, as a team, would have a bit of a debrief on how they felt it went. The team would discuss what was a great success and what they can work on for next time.

She described that as she sat there listening to everyone’s feedback, she couldn’t help but just run through all the mistakes she had made. Thoughts like “you really should’ve hit that note” or “if only you did this better” were running through her mind. As she was thinking them, she felt the Holy Spirit call her to take a moment away from everyone. She stepped away and the Holy Spirit asked her: “Did you do your best for Me tonight?”. Of course she answered with an emphatic YES, and the response back from Him was this: “That’s all I wanted.”

How often do we… no, let me not generalise, how often do I feel like a complete failure because something didn’t go perfectly as planned? How often do I throw my hands up in the air and think, what a waste of time that was, not realising that He only ever asked for my best. And on some days, my best will be like Jenn’s, it’ll look like some missed notes and some stumbles on a stage for all to see.

Excellence is a condition of the heart, more than a thing that we do.

Changing a mindset

For the longest time, I believed that if my art was good enough, then the Lord would smile on it and be proud. I believed that, when it was absolutely perfect, then only could His Kingdom come. The irony of this is, that some of the coolest testimonies I have with regards to God speaking through my art, or Him impacting people powerfully through it is in all the pieces I felt weren’t good enough.

Like the times the Lord has stirred me to paint, when honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing when I’m painting. The times when it was a quick scribble on lined paper during a church service. Even the times when all I could do was splatter paint on a canvas and hope that this is what God had in mind!

It’s hard to show your progress. I realised this when I was asked to do a live prophetic drawing during a ladies conference a few years ago. Honestly, it felt like I was going to pass out I was so overcome with fear. If people saw my process, if they saw that I don’t actually know what I’m doing, then what? I would much rather go create something on my own, where no one can see all the test papers and canvases, and then just have people see the “ta-da” moment. The big reveal so everyone can be impressed. The whole mindset, at its core, is a little unbiblical when you think about it:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”
Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.

2 Corinthians 12:9 (CSB)

Real life doesn’t happen in the ta-da moments. It happens in the process, and the process is what makes it beautiful.

Cultivating excellence

Let’s just take the pressure off shall we? It is exhausting to try and live up to a standard of perfection. Instead, let’s cultivate excellence. Remember, excellence isn’t an excuse to not work hard and get better at a particular gifting or skillset, and perfectionism isn’t a badge of honour.

We bring our best, knowing that it will look different to someone else, and may also ebb and flow according to times and seasons.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as we cultivate excellence:

  • You are already a son/daughter of the King.
    You already have access to all of your inheritance, you’re not working to earn it.
  • Be self-aware enough to check your heart.
    So, did you rush that painting, because you had an absolutely mad week and were saying yes to all the things God called you to say yes to, or were we maybe a bit distracted and didn’t feel like it? It’s good to just check in with yourself.
  • Give yourself permission to try.
    Perfectionism has a tendency to take away our ability to just try for the sake of trying. It takes the fun out of things, because it’s only fun if we are an absolute whizz at it. Learn to let go and play.
  • What you do isn’t who you are.
    Sometimes our identity is so closely connected to what we do, that if we don’t do something perfectly, it means that we are fundamentally flawed. No, it just means that you didn’t get that thing right this time. It doesn’t impact or change who you are at all. Remember point number one, you already have everything you need.
  • Bring what you have.
    It might feel like you are exceptionally inadequate to do certain things in this world, and yet, you may feel completely called to them. Go and do it anyways! Don’t wait until you are perfect at it. Bring what you have, because if God has given you a desire to do something, He will give you the grace to get where you need to go. Bring what your best looks like, and see what He does with it.

Remember to have fun

My dear friends, all I really want you to walk away with here is this: life isn’t perfect. You, or the work you do, don’t need to be either. It’s okay to just be yourself, flaws and all. And let me tell you, once you start embracing that, you’ll have a lot more fun too.

Who knew that the hardest thing we would ever need to be, is ourselves. Yet, it’s the one thing that will make you come alive more than anything else.

Be you! And remember that your best is always enough!

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