I grew up believing that “perfectionism” was a quality to be admired and something for which to strive, and so I worked diligently toward that goal and it felt natural to me since trying to be the best in everything was deeply ingrained in my DNA. In truth, I was never the best student or athlete. In my adult life, I found myself relentlessly striving for perfection in running my business: The Allen Morris Company. I strove for perfection in the design of our new projects. I strove for perfection in the management services in our buildings. I strove for perfection in all aspects of my professional and personal life. It is a perfect formula for burn-out.
Of course, the truth of the matter is, all of us are very far from perfect.
While that may sound obvious to you, it wasn’t until my training in martial arts that I became more aware of my self-inflicted and counter-productive perfectionism. So how do we embrace and pursue “excellence” without becoming debilitated, stressed out, and possibly burned out by the impossibility of “perfectionism?”
When I was learning a new form in taekwondo, my teacher Diego Perez, would sometimes say to me, “Mr. Morris, you are not happy with your kick?” And I would say, “What do you mean, Master Perez?” He would say, “You are making a face.” I would say, “I am?” “Yes,” he would say. “You are making a face that looks like you are unhappy with yourself.” While I was entirely unaware that I was making any sort of face, he would assure me that, “Mr. Morris, you are doing just fine.” I realized that he could see in me my frustration and self-judgment that I was not good enough.
Maybe it’s because I grew up with a father who seemed intent on correcting my every error and, as I grew into an adult and partnered with him in business, he was quick to catch every mistake and omission in my work. I loved my father and I knew it was his desire to train me to be excellent. But, I felt I had to be perfect to avoid criticism. And, as already admitted, perfection is unattainable as a professional and business leader, and especially as a father and husband! IF that was my standard, I was destined to fail at everything.
Master Perez taught me that “anything worth doing, is worth doing badly…so you can learn to do it excellently!” (a wonderful quote from one of my literary heroes, G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World; it is also the subject of a good article in Psychology Today, “Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Badly – Exchange Perfectionism for Joy”). The contradiction is that if you only accept perfection, you are destined to never learn and grow in your business, your profession, and your personal life.
To make his point one day, he set up the punching bag we used in training and applied a pressure sensor to it. As a martial artist, I learned that a powerful punch or kick can break a man’s rib with only 25 pounds of force or dislocate a man’s knee with only 80 pounds of force in the right place. In my effort as a black belt to be the best, I wanted to have the most powerful kick. He asked me to delivery my most powerful, perfect kick and measured the pounds of force I delivered. He then said, “Mr. Morris, now relax. Stop trying so hard to do it perfectly and just have fun.” Once I relaxed and was having fun, he said, “Now deliver your spinning kick.” I was shocked to discover that I was far more powerful when I was not trying to be perfect! The difference was, I was in my joy. It was a lesson that no one could explain to me. I had to see it proven undeniably that I am most powerful when I’m relaxed, having fun, and when I’m in my joy. I began to realize that this was not only true in martial arts. I believe it is true that we are all much more creative, much more effective, and much more powerful when we are connected to our passion and our joy.
Jim Collins described the central importance of this passion and joy in his book Good to Great with his Hedgehog Concept for companies by asking “What are you deeply passionate about?”. The Good to Great companies focused on those activities that ignited their passion.
We see this in the creation of our new Star Metals Office Building, now under construction in West Midtown, Atlanta. Our intention was to bring a building unlike anything anyone has ever seen in Atlanta – combining a lifetime of “nuts and bolts” office building experience with passion, creativity, and joyful surprises (https://starmetalsatlanta.com/).
In Thomas Peter’s classic book In Search of Excellence, he describes that the most excellent companies are the ones that don’t try to do everything perfectly, but have “a bias for action” which allows the freedom to experiment, make mistakes, and in his words, increase their rate of failure so that they can test, adapt, and change. This is the pursuit of excellence, not the pursuit of perfection! I see it when we are excited and having fun as a team, creating a Rooftop Café, and the employee social amenity terrace and the outdoor collaboration/meeting spaces. When we can laugh and say, “they are going to love this!” or “there is nothing like this anywhere in Atlanta!” (Curbed Atlanta)
We knew we were on the right track when we first released the renderings and the comments on social media were:
“That office tower might be my favorite building planned in Atlanta right now, just from an aesthetic perspective. Hyped that they’re finally kicking this off.”
“Really love the Star Metals development. Yet another urban node and great architecture is a win-win”
“Star Metals just keeps getting better and better”
“It is good to see a developer actually care about aesthetics and pedestrian experience. The Westside is quickly becoming my favorite area in Atlanta”
“Wow, they’re really doing some great looking work!”
For me this is the result, not of perfectionism, but excellence born of passion and joy.
Have a Blessed Imperfect Excellent New Year!
– A Recovering Perfectionist