Once upon a time I won an award for achieving outstanding quality in an organizational context. I also taught six sigma concepts to managers in the company for which I worked. If you missed the six sigma effort, it had to do with reaching 99.99966% accuracy in deliverables or products by engineering efficient and repeatable processes. Sigma, of course, represents one standard deviation from the mean in a normal distribution (bell curve). Six sigma exudes absolute confidence in (close to) perfect achievement, all of the time.
Now you might suspect that the discipline of six sigma would also seep into the personal life of its practitioners, but sadly, that is not always the case. My workshop motto is “Oops!” and my crooked headstone will read “This Will Have to Do”.
How could a person sink so low?
Well, as I age, the goal of perfection seems further away. It’s like the Big Bang: the universe is expanding faster than my ability to keep up. Certainly there is a red shift in my ability-to-aspiration ratio. Pursuit of excellence has been replaced by pursuit of ‘okay-ness’.
Social psychologist Gordon Allport used to say that individuals generally adjust their goals, based on a recent track record of successes and failures. This concept was strongly brought home in a recent project I attempted – installing a planked ceiling and crown moulding in my second floor stairwell. Naturally, I researched different methods of cutting compound angles and I built a stair box to support my ladder. However, try as I might, I could not envision the correct method of cut… and due to a long standing reversal problem, one third of my stock was wasted. However, despite uneven walls, ladder balancing, and (what is the opposite of ambidexterity? – well, that), it got done.
In retrospect, I wonder if pursuit of excellence is at times hijacked by a simple desire for personal control – a goal that is usually self-defeating. In that regard, it’s easier to understand the artists who intentionally mar their work as a recognition of impossible standards. Clearly, my work embraces this wabi-sabi approach.
So these days, I’ve attuned my goals to pursuit of small successes… anything more falls into the category of ‘minor miracle’. But you know what – that’s okay. Maybe one sigma is enough…
Pursuit of Perfection
As Wally suggested, I’m one of those people who missed the Six Sigma program. But after admitting my lack of knowledge in this area I think in my field of work, perfection is rarely achieved and we settle for doing our best, at least the conscientious ones do! I can’t imagine what perfection even looks like in education, or in my second career of innkeeping, for the simple reason that our final product is people and I don’t think there is anyone perfect (to the chagrin of those who think they are!) How is perfection measured when you don’t know the results of your input for years to come?
But loving what you do makes the striving for excellence easier. And when success is reached the pleasure and pride is shared with those who are benefiting from your hard work! That is a feeling that is unlike any hallucinogenic drug can deliver. And it propelled me to do it again tomorrow, maybe with modification or maybe not. I did that for 35 years and it never got old. Don’t get the wrong idea. As much as I would like to think that level of excellence was reached everyday in my classrooms, I know there were low days and bad days interspersed with the good ones but there was always tomorrow to win my respect back!
Innkeeping is similar. The end product is a happy tourist. I was good at that too. We always went out of our way to please and delight our guests. If they mentioned something they were looking for, kind of off the cuff, we arranged it for them to their delight. Cleanliness and good food are requirements in hospitality so that was a given. Excellence came in the trimmings. One of us met them at the door after dinner every night just to see how they enjoyed it. The fire was always going in the living room for late evening schmoozing with a glass of wine, and a willing ear to listen to their stories. But once again we were doing what we loved so striving for excellence was an achievable goal not an obligation to merely get through the day!
Now, however, with advancing age and social distancing the trouble is I have lost my purpose, my definition. I was a teacher, then an innkeeper, but now I’m a lonely old man with inertia. I do believe I’m probably pretty good at inertia, too. After all my entire life I strove for perfection. I know I’m good at it cause when I try to get out of my chair, there is this weird groaning noise and I realize there is no reason to get out of my chair. Looking for purpose is hard, and I’m not really good at it now, but hopefully as the world opens up new purposes may provide themselves to me and I will find another one I love and strive for perfection once again!
The Stigma of Perfection
I am a firm believer in personal growth and self-improvement. I have a dear friend who displayed a quote on the wall in her office that said, “If you’re not working on yourself, you’re not working.” But even the six sigma model allows for a small degree of error affirming that perfection is not the goal. And if the quest is for improvement in efficiency and effectiveness then doing the best we can under the circumstances can be pretty darn good.
I’m also a firm believer in “good enough isn’t.” Let me explain. I once worked for a boss who would often challenge my idea and requests, especially if they exceeded standard norms and resource distribution. Her response would usually boil down to, “Can you live with what you have?” Even now, I feel a visceral reaction to those words. Of course I could “live” with it. We don’t need even what we already have to “live.” But to excel, to improve, to energize, and to engage my staff and colleagues to provide excellence, good enough just wouldn’t do it. So when I talk about doing the best we can, I mean, doing the best we can which is definitely more than okay or good enough or even the infamous – “I’ll try” which, of course, allows for failure.
But none of this implies perfection. Early in my career, I would hear the wise words of my senior colleagues who would remind me that I’d never get it all done because no one is perfect. And while I understood them, I secretly strove to prove them wrong. Even when, at times, I may have reached a six sigma level, it not only didn’t last, but it took its toll from other parts of my life. Later on I would learn that balance and working to be my best self were necessary companions in living a good life.
Today my best isn’t what it once was. And while it’s better in one or two areas that have unfolded from the wisdom of many years of experience and self-reflection, it cannot, nor should it be, compared to days of yore. “Oops!” and “This will have to do” accompanied by an understanding and accepting smile may also be a sign that not everything that used to matter, still does and what didn’t appear to carry much significance, now holds more of our attention at doing the best we can.