good better best: excellence or perfection?

When my daughters were little, they received a beautiful handmade quilt for a Christmas gift one year. It displayed a brightly coloured schoolroom motif, scattered with wax crayons and a merry alphabet border. In the centre of the quilt on a blackboard were bold white chalk letters which spelled,

“Good, better, best; Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best.”

Although I responded with delight to such a lovely homemade item, I hid the negative instincts that the verse provoked. The girls posed for a picture, clutching the blanket up high between them, and I took care to ensure the entire adage was included in the shot.

It took some time for me to articulate why the inspiring little proverb would bother me. It was an elementary adaptation of the old Protestant work ethic, promoting hard work and continuous improvement. It also hinted at the subtle disparity between excellence and its cheap facsimile, perfection. There are a number of differences between the two.

Excellence is attainable. Ultimately, its final product is in achieving a goal and enjoying its benefits. Perfection, however, is elusive. Its final product is a culmination of details which can never be orchestrated to coincide simultaneously. It is a constant reminder of failure. It is personified in the incessant nitpicker in the crowd that splits hairs and ruins the sense of accomplishment.

Excellence builds on mistakes. It welcomes the adverse results when an error is made, because it contrasts and defines the desired accomplishment. Perfection will not submit to this concept. Errors are simply unacceptable and, unfortunately, turned into wasted opportunities.

Excellence motivates. It embraces hard work in anticipation of the eventual accomplishment. Perfection paralyzes. It scrutinizes the complexities of the work, and makes people fearful to begin, breeding procrastination rather than productivity. It embezzles optimism.

Excellence involves teamwork. It makes room for the dynamic interplay of relationships and complex environments. It creates a collaboration, in which differing ideologies and skills can enhance the final product. Green, blue, orange or gold personalities should be melded and appreciated for their diversity and input. Perfection, however, holds tight to individual perception. It is static, and resists differing views. Its mantra is, “If you want a job done right, do it yourself.”

Excellence propagates itself. The process involved in achieving excellence creates ways to surpass what you originally intended. Further, the process will begin again, building on the concept of continuous improvement. Perfection, however, is infertile. It prohibits improvement, because how can you improve on perfect?

Excellence is a display of accomplishment. It is a celebration of the abilities of people, working together towards various interpretations of the magnificent. Perfection is simply an exhibition. It is cheap, lacking dimension, and gives credits only “where credit is due.”

The Good, Better Best poem leaned too close to the rigid ideals of perfection for me. As a young mother, I had already found myself ensnared a number of times in unreachable expectations of myself. I had tried to keep the perfect house, raise the perfect children, and lend my perfect wifely support towards an attempt for a perfect marriage. The false front was unrewarding and stale, and I had to fight to establish healthy levels of personal accomplishment. The poem lured me back into “image management,” and my better instincts flew up the red flags. Within a short time, the darling quilt found its way into a keepsake box, where it will remain, pretty yet destructive all at the same time.

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