On Mentoring: “Perfection is an illusion, it’s pursuit is a pathology”

A while back, my wife, Michelle Block, and I were talking about getting stuff done – actually done, not just part of the way done – when she said something that I think is really profound:

“Perfection is an illusion, it’s pursuit a pathology.”

I really love this statement. It’s very simple, yet full of meaning. I asked Michelle where this statement came from and she gave me a very good story to tell.

Dr. Michelle Block is an Associate Professor of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Indiana University and an expert in her own field. Michelle takes very seriously the need to foster future generations of scientists and is very proud to be able to mentor some of these future scientists. One of the most inspiring experiences in her own development was reading Rosalyn Yalow’s Nobel Prize Speech, and she hopes to be able to provide similar encouragement to her successors. With that in mind, Michelle had been speaking with a colleague about the best way to explain to the upcoming generation of scientists what is expected of them, what it takes to be a good scientist. Her colleague asked her, “What’s the difference between excellence and perfection?”

Michelle believes that you’re supposed to get better or you’re not doing your job. You want to be your best at all times. That’s excellence, but we’re not asking for perfection. You can’t deliver perfection, and if you try to, it’s a pathology. But excellence is forgiving yourself and accepting your mistakes, cutting yourself some slack, learning from it, and getting better every time. You need to teach the next generation how to push to the best of their potential, how to be excellent. If you do that, you’re going to be your personal best, and sometimes that may even be THE best, but it’s not the end goal. She would ask for your best, and there are no excuses. You’ll suck sometimes, you’ll make mistakes, but keep giving it your best. Understand that part of excellence is failing, and learning from it.

I really think this is valuable advice to everyone, regardless of industry or experience levels. What is expected of you at very level is excellence, not perfection. Deliver your best and continually improve. Don’t be pathological.

Now that I’m done paraphrasing the excellent advise of my wife,  I’ll let her speak for herself. Michelle is full of great advice and here are two brilliant excerpts, the latter of which produced my favorite quote:

On work/life balance:

“Excellence is just pushing your personal best at whatever it may be- and what is excellence for each individual changes by circumstance and their own personal growth. … You are going to make some mistakes and that’s OK, because that’s how we all learn the difference between perfection and excellence- excellence allows for error and growth.  So, ignore that compulsion to try be perfect- and use that power that comes with the permission to be human that accompanies the pursuit of excellence. … You are going to have to accept that during adventures things will often go sideways, you need to cut yourself some slack often,  and be certain to take the time to acknowledge and celebrate your victories in your life.”

On being normal:

“With very few exceptions, nearly every single scientist questions their own ability to succeed throughout their career.  None of the Nobel winners knew their destined fate beforehand. …  Successful individuals have an uncanny ability to avoid fear-based distraction and paralysis by instead  using that  inner questioning of their own abilities as an anthem to  discover the great things they are capable of.  No one tells you everything the Nobel Prize laureates botched, that many were also afraid they wouldn’t get their PhD at several points, and they were also very likely terrified they couldn’t get a job at several points.  Now all we see are the incredible things they have done- not what they overcame and the fear they ignored to do it.

“Striving for excellence means pushing for the best you can do with everything you have.  Perfection is an illusion and its pursuit is a pathology.  Know the difference between the two, be kind to yourself, try not to fear your limitations, and if you do fear them as most of us do- don’t let it control you or guide your decisions.  In my opinion, not only is this one of the critical foundations of becoming a great scientist (a constantly evolving process-none of us ever really get there), but there is some pretty good advice in there on how to live life well and peruse your dreams.”

One last thing: Michelle believes that she may have paraphrased someone else. If you’ve seen this quote before, please let us know where. Proper attribution is very important!

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