Pride over perfection

A mental model for overcoming unrealistic expectations and spurring action

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have a problem. A perfection problem.

No matter where we are in life; no matter our age or profession or financial status, there is one thing we can say with absolute certainty: Someone is doing it better.

Someone is more successful. Someone is better looking. Someone has more money. Someone has closer relationships. Someone is in better shape.

They are so damn impressive, these people. They exceed all expectations with annoying frequency. And just to add insult to injury, they make it all seem so effortless.

We can't help but look at these people with envy.

It could be:

  • The mom who always pulls off the perfect holiday card (delivered in November no less!)

  • The golfer with the low handicap

  • The executive with the impressive title & compensation

  • The grandmother whose grandkids call her every day—just to chat!

  • The influencer with a million Instagram followers

"They're doing it better than us," we think.

We convince ourselves that these overachievers have reached a status that we never will: Perfection

The great fallacy

Of course, intuitively, and despite any jealousy we may harbor, we know deep down that the idea of any human reaching anything close to perfection—in any field—is ridiculous.

What we perceive as perfection is merely an illusion—if a carefully crafted one. Upon closer inspection, reality is much different.

  • The reigning holiday-card champion mom is taking pills to get through the day

  • The low handicap golfer is on the verge of divorce

  • The well-paid executive thinks she's about to get fired

  • The world's favorite grandmother suffers daily from chronic illness

  • The influencer is finding out that online friends don't always lead to real-world happiness

In other words, these people are not perfect. They struggle. They look at others—like you and I look at them—and they wonder how the heck they can be so perfect. And, of course, they make mistake after mistake.

They are, in fact, only human.

Perfection—in the sense of "the perfect mom," or "the perfect relationship" or "the perfect employee" is a misnomer. What we really mean is "a great mom" or "a healthy relationship," or "a reliable employee."

To expect perfect out of anyone or anything is to be unreasonable. We are not and will never be perfect spouses or parents or children or employees.

And you know what? Wouldn't it be boring if we were?

Perhaps the most fulfilling part of life is failing, picking ourselves up, failing again, and then maybe—once in a while, when the stars somehow manage to align—achieving some success. We learn from our mistakes. We get better. And when we finally succeed, the victory tastes that much sweeter.

An alternative approach

There are lots of reasons to set aside this pursuit of perfection. It's unhealthy and unrealistic to think we can ever achieve it. And the goal of perfection itself can be so intimidating that we often quit before taking one step down what we perceive to be an unbearably treacherous path to improvement.

So what should we do then if want to improve our careers or relationships or fitness?

I propose an alternative approach that is based not on the pursuit of perfection, but rather on pride. On putting forth efforts that we (you and I) are truly proud of while focusing less on the outcome.

This approach should work for any endeavor we choose to take on. From running that first marathon, to handling that delicate situation at work, to starting that new business.

Here it is:

5 Steps for Doing Hard Things

  1. Forget perfect — Why have a goal that we know from the outset is unachievable? Forget it. The fact that we will make mistakes along the way is a given. So why start with unrealistic expectations?

  2. Focus — We will achieve nothing great without focus. This means saying 'no' to more things than you'd expect so that we can focus on what matters. And it means being organized and diligent with our plans to get where we're going. I wrote about my 2021 focus here.

  3. Require high standards — The idea of perfection is a societal construct. It's external validation. In other words, it doesn't matter. What does matter? Impressing ourselves. The standards that you require from yourself are deeply personal but when you're setting them, let me just remind you of two quick things:

    1. The time that we are on this planet is so short that it is almost laughable. You and I will be gone in the blink of an eye. No one will remember us in a hundred years. It’s sad but true. So why not do something awesome?

    2. We are all capable of way, way more than we give ourselves credit for. Deep down, we know this intuitively. But we’re afraid to admit it because “what will they think?” It’s our choice: We can choose to let fear or laziness or circumstance set our destiny or we can choose to rise to the level that we are truly capable of.

    So aim high. And for accountability purposes, tell a few people how high you're aiming. It wasn't until I told a few people that I was writing my first book that I had that "Oh sh*t moment" and finally started taking it seriously myself.

  4. Embrace failure — The great thing about not starting this journey in pursuit of perfection is that we know all along that failure is coming. When it does come, embrace it. Say "Hello, old friend. I was expecting you." And while it may knock you down temporarily, try to remember that it's actually a good thing because this failure is exactly the milestone that you needed to pass on the way to success. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Am I right, Kelly Clarkson?

  5. Assess effort not outcome — We may set a new PR in our marathon or perfectly navigate the work situation or start an incredibly successful new business. Or... those things may all go horribly wrong. Either way, assess what you can. And that's not the outcome, but rather the effort. Are you truly proud of the effort you put forth? That's all you can really control. Sometimes that answer is going to be no. And that's okay. Get better next time.

And that's it. So remember—forget about perfect. It doesn't really exist anyway, so don't waste time worrying about it. Focus instead on pride. On putting forth efforts that you are truly proud of. No one else on Earth may ever even have a clue about the effort you put in. Who cares? It doesn't matter. Impress yourself.

Have a great week. I’ll be back next Thursday. - Greg


Photo credit: Andrew Slifkin @

Extra credit:

Two podcast episodes I wanted to recommend this week:

  1. This episode of the Tim Ferriss Show featuring marketing guru/author/podcaster Seth Godin. I’m a fan of all the work both of these gentlemen do but two things I like about this episode, in particular: 1) they talk a lot about creative constraints. Remember those from Sir G. Shakespeare Campion last week? I think I’ve earned the title. That was a lot of rhymes, okay? I’m just saying, and 2) Related to today’s article, Seth puts forth an interesting idea, see my tweet on it below. Tim Ferriss retweeted it, so you know, it must good.

2. I also wanted to recommend this podcast episode to you. It’s a conversation with long-time Wall Street pro Jim O’Shaughnessy and author/blogger/big thinker extraordinaire Tim Urban. If you don’t know Tim, he writes the well-known Wait But Why blog, and I personally think he’s one of the best thinkers I’ve ever come across when it comes to big picture ideas (like really big picture — humanity, the universe, etc.). Anyhow, I highly recommend listening, especially to the second half of this conversation where they talk about how technology is increasing the amplitude of potential outcomes for humanity—basically making them either much worse or much better than what we’ve witnessed so far in history—and how echo chambers are playing a role in which way we ultimately go. He is coming out with a new book soon called The Story of Us, which is adapted from his epic blog post on the topic. If you like thinking about big picture things, do yourself a favor and check out Tim’s work.

Okay, now that’s really it. See you next week. - Greg