Frontiers of Psychotherapist Development

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The Pursuit of Excellence is Not the Pursuit of Perfection

the pursuit of perfection vs the pursuit of excellence

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

-Niels Bohr, Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner.

The pursuit of getting better at our craft in therapy requires us to make fine distinctions. One of them is to make the distinction between  the pursuit of excellence vs. the pursuit of perfection.

The pursuit of perfection has no room for mistakes. Failing = Failure. The pursuit of excellence treats errors and blunders as grist for the mill. It is where the ordinary magic of growth happens. Failing ≠ Failure.

The pursuit of perfection is rigid, exacting, clinical and cold. The pursuit of excellence is flexible, warm and humanistic in the emotionally charged interpersonal encounter of two persons coming together to co-create a better life for one party. In turn, the giver is moved to be a better person in return as well.

The pursuit of perfection is self-centered. The pursuit of excellance is others-centered. It uses the self in service of the other. It doesn’t use the other to enlarge the self.

The pursuit of perfection sees therapy as a performance. As if held within the judging gaze of another, it’s ego is at stake, thus it confines to it’s comfort zone. The pursuit of excellance seeks to re-form the status quo, seeking to reach beyond our comfort zone.

The pursuit of perfection suffers chronic anxiety. The pursuit of excellence embraces uncertainty, and accepts the uncontrollable force of life circumstances. It treats the turn of each event as teachable moments for the inner life. Its antidote to worry is to believe that the most perfect thing to do is to embrace imperfection.

The pursuit of perfection wears a fixed mindset hat. The pursuit of excellence wears a  growth mindset hat, which promotes receptivity in learning, and learning to take feedback seriously and not personally.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the pursuit of perfection thinks it is pursuing excellence.

May we make room for the pursuit of excellence in the new year ahead!

– Daryl Chow, Ph.D.

*imperfect image above hand drawn with Paper & Pencil  on iOS device


  1. Nice reflective piece. Reminds me that perfection leaves no room for failings but excellence transforms failings into ingredients for growth, maturity and empathy.

  2. Excellent piece, Daryl. So true, and so well said. This difference between perfection and excellence (which I sometimes also refer to as achievement) is something I’m always striving to help clients learn, but that I don’t always remember to apply to myself. Thanks for the reminder!

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