Striving for Excellence vs. Perfection

I recently received a kind note from an F1Y who got a job offer from one of the top firms. She was excited and thanked me for helping her to achieve "perfection" in her case preparation.

I was thrilled for her and appreciate the gratitude in the spirit it was given.

In thinking about the conversation, I realized that her use of the word "perfection" didn't sit well with me for some reason. After thinking about it for a few days, I realized why.

I prefer the concept of striving for "excellence" instead of aiming to achieve "perfection."

Excellence is about setting a high standard for yourself and focusing on getting as good as you can possibly be. It is ultimately inward-focused.

It's about being as excellent as YOU can be.

It's your current ability vs. YOUR maximum potential.

The concept of perfection (at least the way I think about it) feels much more like an external standard. We are aiming to be "perfect" based on someone else's standard. It is you vs. an impossible-to-achieve standard.

This may seem like semantics -- arguing over subtle differences in words.

BUT like I've said on previous occasions, your words reveal your thinking, and your thinking dictates your actions. (Your thinking also determines how you feel emotionally about your actions.)

Let me give you an example.

Assume that you're an athlete at the Olympics.

If you strive for "excellence," break your own personal record by a HUGE amount and win a silver medal, you're thrilled about your accomplishment.

Alternatively, let's say you're a "perfection"-oriented person. At the Olympics, you also break your personal record and when the competition ends, you discover you "lost gold" (a.k.a., won silver). Under these circumstances, you will feel terrible about failing to be perfect.

Key Insight (worth writing down):

The problem with striving for perfection is no matter how much you accomplish, you will (I hypothesize) NEVER be happy.

I saw a lot of this addiction to perfection at McKinsey. I also saw it a lot when I spent a decade in Silicon Valley.

In Silicon Valley, for example, you see this perfectionism play out as follows:

If you sell a company for $100 million, how do you know you didn't just get lucky?

If you sell two companies for $100 million each, you still didn't sell either for $1 billion.

If you are "only" a $1 billionaire, you're not as "perfect" as being a MULTI-billionaire.

If you have a Harvard undergrad degree, you still don't have a Harvard Law degree.

Striving for perfection is an incredibly slippery slope because no accomplishment is ever enough.

As a guy with three daughters, I've started paying attention to perfectionism in women.

The entire American culture of being a woman (from my perspective) is heavily perfection-based. You see it in women's magazines.

Buy this product to look more beautiful/less blemished/attract a guy. In short, every product assumes you're flawed, and every product promises to get you closer to perfection.

I used to be an occasional reader of Cosmo Girl magazine -- before the magazine went out of business. When I told this to moms in my community, they were always puzzled and had a look of concern on their faces…. basically, as if I was some kind of freak.

But, once I explained why I read it, they just laughed.

So, why did I used to read Cosmo Girl magazine?

ANSWER:

To know thy enemy.

Whatever brainwashing society was going to inflict on my girls, I wanted to know it well so I could attempt to inoculate my girls from it.

So, what problem did I have with Cosmo Girl magazine (and by extension, Cosmo magazine for adult women)?

It's the premise.

The premise = You are (very) flawed and that's a problem.

I found the entire thing disgusting.

Literally, every page -- every ad, every article -- was laced with this presupposition. It's one thing to put this in front of adult women who can make their own choices, it's another thing entirely to put it in front of an impressionable 11-year-old girl.

Got pimples? We can fix that.

Don't know how to do your hair the right way? We can fix that too.

How to get boys to pay attention to you? We can fix that too.

Unless you know what the publisher or advertiser is doing, and why they are doing it, you will (after say 10 years of reading this stuff in one's formative years) assume you're hopelessly flawed.

What I try to teach my kids:

Yes, you are flawed (because EVERYBODY is flawed… NOBODY is perfect) and you're perfectly fine the way you are.

Yes, strive for excellence to see how good you can become at whatever you're striving for, but NEVER feel bad for not being perfect.

What's ironic is the more successful someone is, the more it seems they're likely to suffer from addiction to perfection.

When I was at Stanford, a survey of Stanford women showed that roughly 85% of Stanford women were unhappy with their bodies.

Here were some of the most accomplished women in the world -- future supreme court justices, Nobel prize winners, contributors to society, and the amount of genuine concern (and energy) about not having a perfect body really surprised me.

At McKinsey, the open secret is a lot of McKinsey people are incredibly talented AND incredibly insecure (in their lack of perfection). Many even argue that McKinsey targets the over-achieving, highly insecure -- because they "need" the validation McKinsey provides.

This obviously isn't completely true, but neither is it completely false either.

Arguably, the people with the greatest accomplishments are the MOST insecure -- in part because they are close enough to perfection to see it, but never close enough to reach it.

I am not immune.

When I left McKinsey to do my first (of many) startups, my first one failed (the second one too). I kept benchmarking my career success vs. my former peers.

Geez -- so and so sold his company for $300 million. I did not (and still haven't). Then, my wife's former college roommate sold her company for $950 million. Geez, I'm nowhere close.

In my early days as an entrepreneur, I struggled quite a lot.

I built and maintained a financial model comparing my current earnings vs. what I'd be earning if I were still at McKinsey vs. what I would be earning if I were working at McDonald’s.

(Sadly, McDonald’s won in more months than I care to admit.)

Yes, this is what ex-McKinsey people do with their spare time and insecurities… we QUANTIFY how much of a loser we feel like. Some habits, even when wallowing in self-pity, are hard to break!

Needless to say, those estimation skills came in handy... 🙂

Is striving for perfection really that bad?

YES, it is.

Let me explain why.

Perfectionism is an addiction. A perfectionist needs the "high" of achievement in order to feel good about himself.

Although addiction to achievement doesn't seem like that big of a deal, the problem comes when the perfectionist is willing to put achievement over and above everything else in life -- marriage, children, health (and for some, even the law).

The thought process of the perfectionist is to sacrifice (potentially everything) to achieve what's "missing," and once that has been achieved, to appreciate life at that point in time.

This is a fool's journey.

The accomplishment addict will never stop and will never be satisfied for more than a few brief moments.

If you think management consultants, who are hyper-analytical, are immune from this, you are wrong.

Just ask Rajat Gupta -- the former head of McKinsey worldwide… who is now in prison for insider trading.

Why would someone who is on the board of Goldman Sachs and P&G, who is a personal advisor to Bill Gates AND Bill Clinton engage in insider trading?

The speculation is Rajat Gupta, who has an estimated net worth of $125M, was frustrated that he wasn't a billionaire.

Many of his (Wall Street) friends were billionaires and he thought he was just as smart (if not more so) than them… and wondered how come I'm not a billionaire yet?

Like I said earlier… any addiction, even to perfection, when taken to an extreme can be dangerous.

My key message in sharing all this is to make the following two points:

1) Success is getting what you strive for.

2) Happiness is appreciating what you got.

Never CONFUSE the two. They are INDEPENDENT.

Do you want to be successful? To be happy? or to be Both?

These are entirely distinct (but not mutually exclusive) paths.

Statistically speaking, in the United States once a person's income reaches the country-wide median income (around $50,000 USD for Americans), their level of happiness does not increase as income increases.

Translated, once you know you will not starve to death and die, more money does not equal more happiness.

Once again, the two are SEPARATE.

Success is achieved externally. Happiness is achieved internally (through introspection).

I mention this because I wish someone had explained this to me very early in life.

While I understood this idea intellectually, I never experienced it personally until very recently.

You see over the past year or so, I've been working through my emotional baggage and issues with a therapist. Yes, I am terribly flawed.

Until recently, I always saw this as a problem… something never to be admitted to and in my heart of hearts to be ashamed of.

And after a year of working through the therapeutic process, I'm for the first time in my life actually okay with my flaws and "failures."

There was a time in my life (most of it actually) where the thought of my even "admitting" that I had problems and was seeing a therapist was horrifying.

I would have feelings of shame and fear that I would lose the respect of others.

(And yes, I really hope my parents never read this article… obviously, I'm not 100% "cured" yet!)

I've decided to share this part of my life for two reasons.

1) It is what it is. I am what I am… and I am finally accepting this to be true and even appreciating it.

2) I wanted to share my experience with you and my other readers in the event anything I've said resonates with you.

I wish I'd had an emotionally healthy role model to learn from early in life. I never did. Although I'm not sure I'm 100% emotionally healthy, I am certain I'm emotionally healthier than before.

Through this introspective process, I've come to recognize a theme in my professional work.

I like helping the "underdog," and I like "leveling the playing field" for the audiences I serve -- small business owners and more recently, aspiring and new management consultants.

For many years, I was reluctant to admit to either for fear of embarrassment.

Four years ago, I was giving a keynote speech at a conference hosted by Fortune magazine. The Chief Marketing Officer for Dell wasn't able to give the keynote, and they asked me to step in as the keynote speaker.

The conference was geared towards mid-size companies -- companies that are a lot more lucrative to serve as consulting clients (than small businesses) because they can afford higher fees.

I was explaining the work I do and more importantly the size (or lack thereof) of the clients I serve to another speaker. His response has stuck with me all these years.

"Victor, I get it. You have this stellar Fortune 500 background and you are willing to help the little guy and you aren't even the slightest bit embarrassed by it. That's so interesting," (in reference to the lack of my embarrassment… which of course implied I SHOULD be embarrassed by it).

I was too surprised by the remark to be offended -- but that's what I was… offended.

Along similar lines, about two years ago, I was reading a message board post about me written by an anonymous user… you know how snarky and mean anonymous posters can get. I'll never forget one criticism of me.

"If that Victor Cheng guy is so good, why in the hell would he be helping all of us get jobs. If he were really THAT good, he'd be CEO somewhere by now. He's a loser." (I edited out the 4-letter words that were used to describe me.)

Ouch!

I suppose at some level, it's true. If I really were "good enough" to be a Fortune 500 CEO, I probably would not be writing this right now. But, you know, I'm okay with it.

You see, the real reason I work with "underdogs" is because I get great personal satisfaction from doing so.

Of all the emails I get, my favorite one was from a young undergrad from Brown University (I think it was Brown). She had just gotten double offers from McKinsey and BCG.

She was raised by a single mother who earns $25,000 USD (very close to the U.S. poverty line) -- a mother who sacrificed enormously to be able to get her to Brown. The F1Y herself had worked hard and sacrificed for years to help create a better life for herself and for her mother.

As she explained, it was a HUGE deal for her (and her family) when she got two consulting job offers as a 21-year-old soon to be college graduate. Her first-year compensation?

$90,000 USD -- nearly 4 TIMES what her mother earns in a year.

I was THRILLED for her.

I remember her closing lines were something like, "For years I wondered if all the work and hardship would ever pay off, thanks to your help, it did pay off. Thank you so much."

It was one of the most meaningful emails I received in my life. Up until that time, I thought I was just helping people out with a tough job interview.

After I received that email, I realized that I had just helped to change someone's life for the better. I never thought of it that way before. I've also never stopped thinking about it that way since that email.

THAT is why I do what I do.

In fact, not only am I not embarrassed by what I do and whom I do it for, I'm PROUD of helping others. It is the most psychologically rewarding work I've ever done in my life. And selfishly, it makes me happy.

So maybe if I were "better," I would be a CEO by now.

Maybe if I wanted more money, I'd serve the big clients who have a lot of it.

Maybe if I did those things, I'd be more "successful" (by someone else's definition).

But all of that just isn't me. I realize and appreciate this about myself… enough to speak openly about it.

I love what I do and who I do it for.

By traditional standards, I'm probably the farthest I've ever been from being perfect and "successful" (I am not a gazillionaire, a CEO of a public company, nor do I manage 500 employees), but I do strive for excellence in my work every day, I'm successful by my own standard, and I've never been happier.

Success vs. Happiness…. and Excellence vs. Perfection

Give it some thought as it applies to your life.

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131 comments… add one
  • Jan Trybenekr Dec 7, 2012, 5:38 am

    Dear Victor,

    thank you for this great article full of self-reflection, humility and willingness to help other people with similar symptoms and tendencies make right decisions already at the beginning of their professional careers.

    I have been following your blog since the first days I got interested in management consulting. Honestly, this article has been the one the most impressive and valuable for me so far, therefore I have decided to share some of my thoughts regarding this topic.

    I have been a typical perfectionist you are writing about for many years of my life, collecting best grades and extracurricular achievements and placing success and top performance above everything else, until this habit started to turn heavily against me and hamper my progress and efforts.

    As a result, I was forced to undergo a painful personal transformation that is still in progress, but I am deeply grateful for nowadays.

    I am gradually moving my focus from perfection to vulnerability, from problem-solving to creating and from the celebration of successes to the celebration of every single moment, trying to be happy all the time, appreciating fully what I have.

    Although I have finally decided to get involved in social entrepreneurship and not in management consulting after the end of my studies as it is the area I feel I can create a bigger impact, I certainly do not plan to stop reading your e-mails I am subscribed to. I enjoy them now even more as I have understood that they are usually more than recommendations for aspiring consultants and provide the readers with REAL education covering various aspects of life.

    Thank you a lot for all of them and keep up your EXCELLENT work!

    Jan

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 1:41 am

      Jan,

      I’m honored that you would share you story. It sounds like you’re undergoing a self transformation. I wish you the best of luck with that.

      -Victor

  • Maximus Dec 7, 2012, 5:22 am

    Victor, appreciate the work you do and this article is excellent, not perfect :). I’m a perfectionist and you’re right it’s about success and not happiness. I just took the TOEFL and received 108/120 and was dissapointed as I aimed at 116. But hey, 108 is really good and if I’m comparing myself to myselft it’s not bad. This is the first shot and I may have many more if I want. I wanted to apply to HBS sometime ago, receive a job at McKinsey (this is how I got to know this website) because those instituations seemed “perfect”, but they’re certainly not. I admired McKinsey until I read about their consultants playing a pivotal in Enron’s collapse by instilling perfectionistic corporate culture… well, thanks one more time. I’ll definitely share this article with my peers.
    Best of luck,
    Maximus

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 1:39 am

      Maximus,

      Congratulate yourself for what you’ve accomplished so far AND keep on improving to see how far you can go. Good luck!

      -Victor

  • Sartaj Dec 7, 2012, 5:18 am

    Victor,

    It seems you’ve found PURPOSE in life, which is more important all external sources of (temporary satisfaction) – material success and perfection. I guess we all are on a journey to search for that single purpose in life. As Winston Churchill once said:

    “The fortunate people in the world are those whose work is also their pleasure.”

    Thank you for a riveting email.

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 1:35 am

      You’re welcome!

      -Victor

  • Mani Dec 7, 2012, 5:16 am

    Thanks Victor. I really liked reading that.

  • Rob Dec 7, 2012, 4:10 am

    Victor
    I have been following your posts for about a year now (during which I have succeeded in gaining an Assoc role at a top firm – thank you)

    But never before has your post cut through to me personally like your email today. To realise someone else as I do battles with the false pursuit of career perfection is hugely enlightening since it helps me realise “I am not alone” and that it is indeed fools gold.

    Now to take the lesson to heart… That’s the hard bit

    Best regards
    Rob

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 1:35 am

      “Now to take the lesson to heart… That’s the hard bit” — I TOTALLY agree. Half the reason I write what I do is to remind myself to DO what I think.

      Ideas are easy, habits are much harder.

      -Victor

  • Kenneth Lai Dec 7, 2012, 4:08 am

    Living in a world close to 7 billion population sure puts a tremendous societal pressure on an individual, especially when what we do is seen as unpopular/irrelevant to others; myself not excluded.

    Fortunately, the world doesn’t end when that happens; we’re still breathing, living a healthy life and can still perform a-ok, albeit not to the fullest, but hey we’re here and still standing.

    You humility has certainly impressed me. Hope to hear more inspiring stories!

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Firas Dec 7, 2012, 4:01 am

    Victor,
    I have been receiving and reading every one of your emails since more than 2 years. I must say this one is my favorite. Partially because it applies to me to a large extent.
    I always strive for perfection and I”m never content with whatever I achieve. I also have that feeling that I am willing to scarifice everything and anything for what I want to achieve.. and I have done that before.
    Thanks for this great highly impactful post. Always looking forward for your next email.

  • Sebastien Latapie Dec 7, 2012, 3:58 am

    Excellent post Victor. I strongly agree with the distinction you make between striving for perfection and excellence.

    It was also very refreshing to get some insight about your personal life and your emotional life. I don’t think there is any shame in admitting your flaws and the real reasons why you choose to do something, if anything else it makes you more relatable and builds a stronger relationship between the reader and (you) the author.

    I’m still in my hunt to land a job in Consulting, but can only attest to how helpful all of your resources have been. Keep it up!

  • VintageZ Dec 7, 2012, 3:53 am

    Dear Victor,

    Thank you for your wonderful message.

    I have been following your blog for over 2.5 years now, every since I started exploring the field of management consulting as a career option.

    Through this process of searching and applying to consulting firms, I stumbled upon your blog. My perception of your blog has evolved significantly since the early days.

    At the beginning, I felt that your blog was by far THE best resource on the internet to crack the consulting case interview process. As time went by however I still found myself visiting your blog and reading your posts. This was because, your blog was not only beneficial to cracking the case interview process, but also helped me perform better in the real world i.e. on the field. As more time went by, and I had grown from a novice to a professional in the field, I still found myself visiting your blog simply because of the various life lessons and other stories that you shared with your viewers.

    I would like to end by saying that you aren’t just helping people change their lives by helping them land a fantastic job, but you are also helping SHAPE people’s perceptions about life. In other words, you are not just an Advisor but a GURU.

    Good luck! And keep it up!

    Sincerely,
    VintageZ

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 1:33 am

      Thanks for your very kind words.

      -Victor

  • Jamal Davis Dec 7, 2012, 3:52 am

    Hey Victor,

    I really appreciate your testimonial. I think everything you said resonated with me, especially because I was raised by a cash-strapped single mother. I often feel like the under dog and I’m just now learning to be happy and, maybe equally as important, allowing myself to be vulnerable.

    I think everything you do is incredibly dope. And I really hope I can offer you a testimonial of how LOMS helped me within the next two months.

    Thanks for everything,
    Jamal

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