Perfection vs Perfunctory – Which Is Better?

by Lauren McCabe on February 22, 2012

This is what I compare my perfctionist tendencies to: a pond on a  beautiful day. The clouds shine, the water shimmers, and  as I wade around and around in this beautiful, stagnant hole I go aboslutely nowhere.

This is what I compare my perfunctory tendicies to: a wild, racing river. The water rushes down crags, water falls, and valleys. It pours and roars, moving fast, onward through the next  wild piece of land, going everywhere.

Perfectionism is about staying back,  revisiting and revising.

Perfuntory is pushing forward, doing what needs to get done simply, mechanically so you can go and go and go.

Perfection is at the top of the charts, being perfunctory is somewhere in the middle.

This is my question: How do you balance perfection with getting things done? Is it beter to be perfect or perfunctory? What do you think?


  • http://www.TheWallStreetCoach.com/ Kim Ann Curtin

    Lauren…what a great visual of the river roaring over the rocks down down down getting it’s only job done.  I think it’s better to be perfunctory because you are at least in motion! All forward action counts. I truly believe that SHIPPING  (as Seth Godin calls it) is Job #1. Be it our biz life or personal life. 
      How do I balance it? I simply don’t. I accept and no longer resist the mess of life and the messiness of me. I know that nothing I ever do will be perfect. I’m human. It’s not in my genetic code. What I do do though is the best I possibly can.  And then pat myself on the back for doing that and if necessary push myself more the next time if possible. It’s the quest for perfection that has stopped me many times and what I see now is that doing what you can, when you can is half the battle.  And surprisingly people are pretty damn happy with it even if it isn’t perfect! To quote Woody Allen: “90% of life is showing up.” 

    To me showing up = perfunctory. 

    • http://twitter.com/MermaidTales Lauren McCabe

      Agreed. Some of the most successful people I have met don’t do great work, they just do a lot of work well. And sometimes you don’t have to be earth shattering to do amazing things. I do think that finding time and space to actually spend a ton of time on something and see it to perfection is healthy every now and then, too :-)

    • mskinsey

      You got it, girl … well put

  • Creative Times

    Hey, Lauren.  Great question! I used to have debilitating procrastination patterns, fearful that whatever I did would not work out to be perfect.  It showed up the most in school, all the way through college.  I learned somewhere along the way that trying to be perfect, whatever “perfect” is ( it’s pretty subjective, right?), is part of an effort to avoid being criticized. 

     The phrase that saved me was “Go for completion, not perfection.” When I heard it,  I remember something shifting in my brain and exhaling in a big sigh of relief.  This piece of advice helped me get through graduate school with way less stress than in past years as a student.  Just get it done, and move on.  Oh, man, what a Godsend to someone who originally  turned in nearly every paper late if at all.  I did fine in grad school, and I actually enjoyed learning!

    Also:  There are definitely certain tasks and projects that deserve doing with flourish, panache, and attention to detail.  Recently, I wanted a bouquet of flowers for my apartment.  I could have purchased  the bouquets sold in walking distance from my house.  But I refused to spend $8 on tulips that looked like they had been mowed over by a John Deere tractor.  I held out.  A few days later, on my way home from Manhattan, I stopped in a store I liked and found locally (well, sort of – from New Jersey) grown bright fresh yellow longer-stemmed tulips for $6 and I knew they were the ones for me!

    Seems like kind of a small thing but it’s an example of where it makes sense to not just get something done for the sake of getting it done, but to hold out to nail down the details that make a difference.

    • http://twitter.com/MermaidTales Lauren McCabe

      I like that – do things to completion. When I was in college, I started having this problem in my creative writing classes that I would start short stories but never never finish them. You could bring half completed drafts to workshops, and I would just bring one in after another.

      I think finishing things can be hard because it’s final. There’s no way to go back and to add more, and in life, we’re always learning – there’s always more to be done.

      Coming to terms with completion is important. It might make you feel more complete I dare say!

  • Sharon Floyd

    Oh, boy, isn’t this a juicy one?  When I first heard from Danielle Laporte that   “finding balance” is not a worthwhile effort, I’ve breathed much easier. It’s true if you think about it. Perfection is attainable sometimes, depending on the case. But more often, perfunctory is more important and more useful to the world, as Mr. Godin often points out. “Produce, don’t perfect.” 

    I’m at that point where I want very badly to just ship it. Mindfully, with taste and grace. I’ll work towards perfection, but I’ll settle for just awesome. 

    Btw, the new site looks fantastic….hmm, perfect?

    • http://twitter.com/MermaidTales Lauren McCabe

      I think we’re all on the same page: perfect isn’t possible, or at least not all of the time. What a relief! Because perfect can be stultifying sometimes – can keep you back, afraid from falling. We all want to do things well, so finding that balance between “perfect” and just “doing” is so important.

  • mskinsey

    It is impossible to achieve perfection. Perfection is unattainable. It is far better to strive for excellence. Then you can sometimes be excellent AND perfunctory simultaneously. It usually happens when you have lived long enough, read enough, traveled a lot, loved even more.

    It also helps to be able to think clearly while you type 120 wpm, spell every word correctly, and produce exquisite grammar. JK!

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