Thursday, July 07, 2005

Excellence is not Perfect

Excellence is the MBA’s mantra. It is the adjective most frequently used in describing thriving businesses. A search of’s website will show that no less than 4,693 books, most of them business related, have the word excellence in their title. This is quite understandable, because excellence in business can make the difference between profitability and bankruptcy.

You don’t have to be a businessman to understand the importance of excellence. Everybody wants to be excellent at something. One of the great themes of both philosophy and theology is that true happiness is found only in the excellence of the soul. Indeed, the Bible makes clear that God’s creation of the earth is one of excellence, repeating seven times in the first chapter that the creation "is good" or "very good". Excellence and perfection seem to be the divine blueprint.

Remarkably, perfection fails. The first time a human aspires to what "is good", she eats forbidden fruit. This inauspicious beginning to human history foreshadows a lengthy narrative of human failure. In fact, the aspiration for perfection is often the very thing that leads to failure.

Perfectionist standards can often be destructive. Perfection at work comes with a price. The workaholic may excel at his job, but will not have the time to enjoy the fruits of success. Achieving perfection at home is just as costly. For the Martha Stewart wannabe, entertaining and decorating is a daunting task. Every brioche must have panache; every custard must be a gastronomic masterpiece. Unfortunately, the culinary tour de force arrives with high blood pressure and a nervous breakdown. Ironically, perfection in one realm often brings about imperfection in another realm, as if to remind us that humans were programmed to fail.

Actually, human error is an actuarial fact, an ever present reality of everybody’s lives. One can only trust machines to be perfectly accurate. Any human attempt to replicate the rigid efficiency of machines is bound to be a cold and unhappy fiasco. Aspiring for absolute perfection is both quixotic and frustrating.

Where human excellence is found is in the creative use of failure. Imperfection may be flawed in many ways, but it is the perfect environment for human growth. Indeed, what is most meaningful about life is the daily drama of our struggles with imperfection. Those who can find useful lessons in past failures have found the perfect way to master an imperfect world.

The Midrash states that teshuva, repentance, the religious response to failure and sin, was part of the world’s blueprint. What this suggests is that inadequacy is inevitable, and true human excellence is finding a positive use for failure. Or, to paraphrase the well known cliche about lemons and lemonade, "when life hands you failure, make teshuva".

In life, any hope for perfection is itself imperfect. True excellence is finding a way to transform failure and make spiritual lemonade.