Perfection or Excellence?

Life can be maddening.

You spend unreasonable amounts of time and energy practicing, drilling, driving toward that elusive musical bulls-eye, and then something happens.
A baby cries at the worst possible point in your cadenza – and mom doesn’t whisk him into the foyer. What was the kid doing in a grown-up concert anyway?

Everything is set. It’s been ready since mid-afternoon. Months of preparation are poised to deliver a truly memorable event, and the unbelievable occurs.
A maintenance worker in another wing of the building finishes up his regular routine, and forgetting that you’re in the building presses a button labeled “NIGHT” and leaves. Air conditioning stops, lights go out and security sensors activate.

Somebody in the third row sniffs and sniffles through the entire lecture. Everything else is fine, but that soul ruined it. Totally and completely ruined it.

If you’re perfectionistic your blood pressure went up a few points just reading those lines. I apologize, they’re fictitious, though they may have stirred you a bit.

Here are some axioms intended to prompt some thinking about these two:

Both Perfection and Excellence are desirable virtues.

God is both.

The pursuit of perfection will drive you insane while the pursuit of excellence will make you tired – but happy.

Saying you’re aiming for excellence instead of perfection can be a cover for settling for mediocrity.

Perfectionism and Excellence are not synonyms, though we sometimes treat them as though they are.

The quest for perfection in one area of life can potentially result in inferiority in other areas by causing an imbalance.

What does God think about all this “I wanna be perfect” or “it needs to be perfect” thinking?

  • I can only speak for myself, naturally, but I have to remind myself that while God invented music and has absolutely perfect pitch (did He cringe when Bach tempered the scale 250 years ago? I don’t know.) I don’t have perfect pitch and too much coffee in the morning can throw my voice off just enough that it tickles when I sing certain notes. Coughing isn’t the least bit musical. But what I’m singing is more important than how I sing it, especially when I’m part of the congregation. What my heart is like concerns Him even more.
  • When I begin a project I can picture the picture-perfect end result in my mind. But things interfere. Text-book gives way to reality. Priorities shift a little bit mid-project sometimes. I always endeavor to finish with excellence intact and amply evident, but I can’t remember the last time perfection characterized one of my projects, this post included. The same principle applies to all of life.
  • We are mortals. Period. So much for perfection. Salvador Dali is quoted as saying “Fear not perfection – you’ll never reach it.” A few lines away from that quote on the same page (see link) is a good perpsective:

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.
(Michael J. Fox)

“Perfection is God’s business.”

That I can remember.


What have you found helpful with regard to these two?

When I think of excellence, I think of freedom.

  • Freedom from predictable or avoidable mistakes.
  • Freedom from distracting worshipers.
  • Freedom in creativity.
  • Freedom as the result of a disciplined lifestyle.

One story to illustrate the last of those four and then I’ll hush and you can comment:

One afternoon in 1975 I and three friends of mine were readying the college’s 15-passenger van for an eight-week summer tour. We wanted to add some creature-comforts and a tape-deck (a cassette, not an 8-track – I’m not THAT old 😉 ). The van was parked just outside the auditorium and we heard one of our instructors, David Traeger, begin to practice on the nine-foot Yamaha grand piano in the auditorium. It was late spring and all the windows were open. As one would expect, he began with scales and arpeggios. We needed to run to Radio Shack for supplies so a couple of us hopped in the car and ran that and a couple other errands. When we returned almost an hour later he was still doing scales and arpeggios!

“Has he been playing those the whole time we’ve been gone?” we asked.

“Yes” was the answer.

Instead of us thinking it foolish, we commented on Traeger’s discipline being a probable contributor to his complete freedom at the piano and organ. He could play things that would have been way outside the accepted musical norms on that conservative campus. (We heard him cut-loose a couple of times … Amazing!)

Excellence could have been his middle name. I’d like to think it could be mine.

So those are some thoughts of mine, part of a philosophy Dale Jens helped weave into the fabric of my philosophy when I was his student and protégé.

Excellence? Always.
Perfection will probably have to wait till Heaven.

What do you think?

2 Replies to “Perfection or Excellence?”

  1. Jonell

    Your examples are ficticious, but my story below is the truth! And it happened to me!

    I remember a rainy Easter Sunday in 2005 when the parking lot was muddy and we all tracked in a little mud on our shoes. The usher (whose wife keeps an immaculate house) was heard vacuuming the dirt in the hall.

    Next thing I know, I’m in the middle of my offertory (which I had practiced for months) when the usher opens the sanctuary doors and continues to vacuum the aisles of the sanctuary.

    I’ll admit, I was kinda upset. His vacuuming had interrupted my offertory. Was it my offertory, or was I doing it for God’s glory? Maybe God was smiling b/c His plan was working (whatever His plan was).

    I sat down for the sermon and whispered to my husband, “What was that sound?” He only whispered back, “Later!” He knew if he told me, I wouldn’t hear a word of the sermon (smart man).

    We talked about it on the way home, and it took about that long (10 miles) for me to cool down. Now as I look back on that day, it is funny and I laugh. Who knows what God accomplished that day, but it certainly wasn’t the same as what I wanted to see accomplished.

    I can tell you I have learned not to worry so much about what others are doing while I play. I concentrate on playing and doing my best for God’s glory, and I let God work with everybody else in the room.

    I tell you that story b/c I don’t consider that day perfect, but I do remember that I played with excellence and to the best of my ability.

    Looking forward to the rest of what you have to say, Phil.

    – Jonell

  2. Sarah Clark Gregory

    I had the privilege of studying under David Traeger. His personal discipline in music and in the spiritual disciplines was beyond anything else I’ve seen.

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