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Progress, Not Perfection: Would it be all right with you if life got easier?

Welcome, and thank you for joining me as we explore the phrase, “Progress, Not Perfection.” This powerful saying appears in essays, articles, and on social media, often sparking curiosity as to its real meaning. In this article, we will look at the origins of this phrase and how using it can make your personal and professional life more manageable. In other words, easier.

You’ve probably read or heard this three-word phrase before. Saying it out loud to yourself can cause a momentary sigh of relief, as though you’re giving yourself permission to slow down, take a deep breath, and acknowledge what you’ve done so far on a project or personal development plan. So, try it now! Say “progress, not perfection” to yourself once or twice, slowly (you may want to make sure you’re alone for this experiment).

What happened to you when you did this? Did you find yourself ready to sigh? Did you relax even a little bit? Notice the effect of these three words on your body.

In fact, the phrase “progress, not perfection” is a powerful saying, often used to encourage continuous improvement without the unrealistic expectation of being  “perfect.” No one knows its exact origins, but it has gained popularity in various self-help and motivational settings. For example, it is a cornerstone of the 12-step program community, particularly in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and similar groups, where it serves as a reminder that the goal is ongoing recovery and improvement, not achieving a perfect state.

The philosophy behind the phrase aligns with various historical movements that have emphasized the importance of continual improvement and the rejection of perfection as a static, unreachable goal. For example, 

  • The philosopher Voltaire advocated that “the best is the enemy of the good” to influence people suffering from the illusion that perfection actually existed.  
  • The continuous improvement philosophies seen in Eastern traditions dismiss the notion that there is something called the state of perfection.       
  • Modern business methodologies like Kaizen all resonate with the idea encapsulated by “progress, not perfection.” Put simply, Kaizen means “getting better all the time.”

In modern times, it has been adopted widely in therapeutic and motivational environments, reflecting a broader cultural shift towards recognizing the value of ongoing effort and growth rather than attaining absolute perfection. Besides, at some point, we have to ask ourselves, “What exactly is perfection?” 

According to Vocabulary.com, perfection is a flawless state where everything is exactly right. It can also be the action of making something perfect.

Perfection refers to a state where everything is entirely flawless—everything is absolutely perfect. Naturally, finding perfection is rare. The term is frequently used as praise for things that seem unbeatably excellent, like saying, “That red dress complements your red hair perfectly!” In addition, when a musician begins to master a song completely, we could say she is perfecting the song: she’s learning to perform it without any mistakes.

While perfection is a helpful idea when it comes to creating a vision for something (you wouldn’t have a landscape architect draw you a plan for your garden that has built-in flaws), when it comes to actually putting the plan into action, you’ll invariably find something that goes wrong. That’s because whatever you put in physical reality comes up against an ever-changing “landscape” of obstacles. And “perfection,” therefore, doesn’t exist unless we put an endless amount of money, time, and effort into what we’re trying to do. And even then, the perfection we’ve tried to create only lasts until the next obstacle on our path.

The pursuit of perfection can become an obsession, often flying in the face of any of our attempts to finish a project. Take Liz, for example:

Liz: I missed out on an opportunity to receive an award for the best photograph in a competition here in Sacramento. It happened years ago, but the memory still returns occasionally. I’d taken a photo while in  Antelope Canyon outside of Page, Arizona. It was beautiful. I decided to enter the competition. We had ten days to prepare our photos for the exhibition. I got the matting and frame. I placed the photo, but then decided it wasn’t perfect, so I got new matting of a different color. It still didn’t look right. Finally, I put together the photo, matting, and frame so that they looked “good enough,” although they didn’t look perfect. As I got ready to enter the competition, I happened to look at the date. The deadline for submission had been over two days before! I was bummed. 

To make matters worse, when I went to the exhibit and saw who’d won first place, their photo was good. But I suspected that mine would have been better! The only difference was that he’d entered his photo on time, and I didn’t! I’d spent too much time aiming for “Perfect.”  

Does this sound like you? I have a few questions to help you assess where you stand:

  • Have you ever missed out on opportunities because you didn’t think your product or performance was perfect enough to allow you to proceed? 
  • What were these opportunities? 
  • How did you feel when you saw you could have said “yes” to the opportunity? 
  • You want to look for specific opportunities you didn’t grasp because you were afraid that you’d be unable to do whatever it was “Perfectly.”

The result of missing opportunities that you could have engaged with is the one experience that I’ve devoted my career to helping people stay away from. What, you may ask, is that experience? It’s regret! Regret, according to Google’s reference to Oxford Languages, is when we feel sad or disappointed over something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity. 

The good life is the life we lead when we have few regrets over missed opportunities. Regret saps our energy and disempowers us. When we regret something in the past, it becomes difficult to focus on possibilities for the future.

One way to keep clear of regret is to bring our brain around to focus on something in the future that we want to play for. Then, when we’re tempted to forgo an opportunity, we can focus on a phrase that keeps us moving forward. And that phrase is:

Progress, Not Perfection!

If you were to take a 3×5 inch card and print, in your handwriting, those three words, and if you then were to place that card near your computer so that you could see it with ease, I promise that you’d notice a “sea change” in how you encounter opportunities from here on out.

While you might not jump on everything that is brought to you, it might give you a way to assess the possibility of what will happen if you accept that opportunity! You will eliminate the experience of regrets in your life. Isn’t that a game worth playing? And, once again, would it be all right with you if life got easier?

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