Life and Excellence

CC image by Viewminder

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “Something worth doing is worth doing well.” While I certainly agree this phrase has its merits, there is a phrase perhaps less known that struck me when I first heard it: “Something worth doing is worth doing poorly.”

Now I know some of you will freak out at that sentence. It goes against our culture’s way of thinking about things. It certainly goes against the way I was raised. If you did something, you did it well. No questions asked. But I’ve grown up a little since then, and now this idea frustrates me because I know how debilitating it can be.

CC image by Thierry Draus

CC image by Thierry Draus

Excellence is fairly easy to understand but difficult to sustain. At my work, we call it a pursuit, inherently believing that on some level, excellence can never be achieved. Sometimes we debate about whether that is true, but for me, as a perfectionist, I have always believed it is unattainable. It came down to never being enough. I had to get a job, so I got one, and the next feeling I got was that I didn’t get the right job, or the right-paying job.

At work, you have to meet certain standards. If you excel, more becomes expected of you because of your past performance. So you keep excelling, keep trying harder, keep doing better for one reason or another, until one day you slip and don’t perform as expected. And then it happens again. Maybe again and again, because you couldn’t sustain the excellence you started out with.

What happens to me in situations like these is shame. I feel like I can’t move, like there is a physical heaviness against my chest making it harder to breathe, a pressure in my head as I try to keep in the tears. I wonder why I’m a failure, and then I wonder what’s the point of trying so hard. I certainly can’t meet the high standards that are demanded of me, so what’s the point of even trying?

This happens to me when writing too. Sometimes I approach a project and I become afraid that what I write won’t be good or effective or worthy of reading. Sure, I know the first draft is called rough for a reason, but still I hesitate. I want it to be excellent right away. But something holds me back, and it’s that first phrase, except it becomes “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and if I can’t do it well, then I won’t do it at all.” It doesn’t matter if I can or can’t really do it well. If I feel I can’t, I won’t. Which is where the second phrase comes in.

CC image by Viewminder

CC image by Viewminder

“If something is worth doing, and you don’t feel like you can do it well, do it anyway because it’s worth doing.” This is so freeing for people like me, in writing and in life. I have been held to a high standard all my life, and it has resulted in debilitating fear and worry many times. But if I think of this quote when I face a new project, it at least reminds me that it really doesn’t matter that much. If I at least do it poorly, I could do it better next time.

I am definitely not saying that you should stop pursuing excellence. It can be a good thing to put all your energy toward a goal. But I do think that both of these phrases have their place. A balance between them is what I’m hoping for in my life: to do something as well as I possibly can, but to also cut myself some slack when that becomes too big of a pressure mentally.

I want to be able to do that for people in my life too: to challenge them to do things well, but to encourage them out of the failure mentality that high standards can bring. I don’t believe God ever wanted us to function under this kind of debilitating excellence. He created the world and said it was good. I definitely don’t know Hebrew, but it doesn’t seem like the original word meant excellent; it meant good. If we are created in his image, then we should pursue and create things that are good and not worry so much about whether they meet the anyone else’s standards of excellence.

By Tracy Buckler