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
  • Arulmani Balasubramanian Dec 7, 2012, 9:40 am

    A very insightful article! Thanks Victor!

  • Kyle Dec 7, 2012, 9:21 am

    Thank you for your message today, Victor. I believe I needed to see it today, and I admire you for your willingness to share it with us.

    I hope the support and thanks you get from commenters and readers has convinced you that you should never be ashamed of wanting to help people. It may not be a desire that’s positively correlated with net worth, but life is about more than that, and I think this is the key to really living it. God bless you, Victor.

    Thanks again,
    Kyle

    PS – My brother is now an FFY at BCG, thanks in part to your resources. My family is incredibly grateful.

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 2:04 am

      Kyle – Thanks for sharing your point of view and you and your family are quite welcome. – Victor

  • WL Dec 7, 2012, 9:01 am

    Hi Victor

    I am not in consulting line but I enjoy reading your blog as it offers new perspectives on life. I’d like to let you know that your sharing and advice are useful in many ways- sometimes as timely reminder, other time they highlight options in life. I especially like your honesty and the courage to be vulnerable and live your life… It certainly has and will continue to make an impact to people around you…. Thanks much for sharing and I wish you a fulfiling year ahead

  • XZ Dec 7, 2012, 8:18 am

    Hi Victor,

    “When a dog bites you for no reason, you often walk away and forget about it because you know the dog must have its own problems. This happens with people as well, when someone bites you for no reason, it is often their own problems that make them so pissed-off, and you should never doubt yourself because of them!” — I came across these words earlier today, and I hope they can help you as well :-)

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 2:03 am

      XZ,

      A great quote. So true!

      -Victor

  • Krish Dec 7, 2012, 7:52 am

    Good Article. I wish my manager who had worked earlier in McKinsey would read this wonderful news!

  • Gaurav Dec 7, 2012, 7:46 am

    Very insightful, and a life learning
    Thanks Victor

  • P Dec 7, 2012, 7:34 am

    Victor,

    Thanks a lot for your inspiring mail!

    Personally, I do take perfection as a stimulus to be excellent. In other words, striving for excellence is a mean to get a little closer to perfection.

    There is one point I would like to mention: to me perfection is to be found in the platonic world of ideas. Now, ideas are extreme generalizations of instances. This links directly with the difference between “operational excellence” or incremental innovation, vs. breakthrough ideas, being a visionary etc. In my opinion the difference is that with the incremental approach you want to reach (and perhaps exceed) your target by confirming the same instantiation, while with breakthrough you move to a generalization i.e. you aim at a platonic world. As a concrete example, in music, i always strive to play “music” not my specific instrument. So it is the overall message that is important to me, not fact that I can play exceeding expectations.

    Sorry for the dense answer, hope it could take the discussion further. It is certainly a quite interesting topic!

    And, you are right: perfection “consumes” you! We have to watch out!
    All the best,
    P.

  • Rudy Mazzalovo Dec 7, 2012, 6:59 am

    Dear Victor, thanks for sharing these aspects of your personal life. You must be proud of all the help you offer to the caseinterview community. I would like you to be aware that you are not “just” helping case interviewers or FFY. I am myself a senior manager in strategy working for a leading Fortune Global 500 company and I read every single post you send us to find all the inspiration and the “coaching” I need to progress in my career and life. And your strategy frameworks and career guidelines still apply to me. I wish I can find a way to thank you with something else than just words one day. All the best.

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 2:01 am

      Rudy,

      Thanks for your kind words. Of all the ways one can say thank you, the way with words is the most meaningful. Thank you!

      -Victor

  • Z Dec 7, 2012, 6:55 am

    Hi Victor,

    One of the best emails I’ve gotten from you so far. I agree with your points 100 percent. And keep doing your thing. You’re helping to change countless graduate lifes with your interview prep material.

    It certainly helped me.

    All best,

    Z

  • Student Dec 7, 2012, 5:40 am

    Hi Victor,

    Thank you for sharing you personal struggles with us. I’m sure it connects with all of us as we constantly strive to meet what society defines as as success and perfection. Which reinforces what you say about perfection / success being external.

    On several points, though, I do have some deviants from your thoughts – just to play the devil’s advocate.

    Even though money is not correlated after a threshold with happiness, I wonder if prestige is. For example, the economist just came out with a recent article that says prestige is associated with longer lives and stronger health (http://www.economist.com/node/21552539). I wonder if prestige is at all associated with our happiness. Although a gloomy thought, from personal experience, I think I tend to notice that I am at least less insecure with prestige. Of course there are schools of thought that counter this such as the Happiness Hypothesis. What are your thoughts?

    In regards to Cosmo, I feel that it’s just a writing style – in terms of presenting a problem (PAR structure) to hook in the reader. I do think, though, it has damaging effects like you suggested. It’s also great that you mentioned issues regarding women since I think this is a huge area that needs to be improved as more women enter the workforce.

    Finally, I’m not sure if perfection is how I would describe the addiction to constantly achieve… since I don’t think there is a “perfect standard” since it changes depending on the area (Silicon Valley versus Wall Street). Rather, I think it’s uncurbed ambition dictated by what one sees in the real world and greed to constantly want more. People tend to never be satisfied and always strive for more even though they have already achieved much. It’s not having an limit on your desires that leaves you constantly unsatisfied. But I think the concept we talk about is the same, just semantics.

    Aside from that, I wanted to thank you for helping me land a great job offer before graduation at one of the biggest consulting firms and helping me realize my American dream. Like the mother your described, I come from a low-income family. Being about to receive a great offer really makes me appreciate not only people like you who contribute and help others but also just life and humanity as a whole.

    Finally, I’d like to end with a video which I think you will enjoy and aligns well with what you’re saying. Enjoy!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtSE4rglxbY

    • Victor Cheng Dec 8, 2012, 2:00 am

      The prestige hypothesis you mentioned is interesting. Here’s another interesting study.

      When people are given the choice of

      1) earning $100,000 USD when all of their friends earn $50,000 USD

      2) earning $250,000 USD when all of their friends earn $1 million USD,

      something like 80% of people pick option #1 — higher prestige (and relative income), lower income on an absolute basis.

      The problem with striving for prestige is the problem of attenuation. Whatever prestige you achieve, at some point you get used to it. When I got into Stanford as a teenager, I was thrilled. Today, I barely think about it as a big deal (though clearly it is something to be proud of) — I’m too used to it.

      I think this is related to the unending ambition you mentioned previously. If ambition has no ends, then what’s the point?

      Although though I don’t know any billionaires directly, I’m familiar with a few indirectly. I group them into two categories:

      1) Those who do what they’re passionate about and their net worth is a BYPRODUCT of his intrinsic motivation — I put Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs in this category.

      2) Those who have unending financial ambition (most likely in an attempt to use money to attempt to fill some emotional need… which of course is an illusion). I put Larry Ellison, a few Wall Streeters, Jeffrey Skilling, Rajat Gupta (arguably).

      Few people resent billionaires in the former category, a lot resent those in the latter. Although I find it difficult to explain why, I think there’s something going on here that’s important.

      -Victor

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