The Flaw of Perfectionism in the Pursuit of Excellence

The absence of error is a good thing; it’s what every claims department should desire. However, insisting on perfection under the wrong circumstances can actually add to problems and bring about a lower level of performance.

By Barrett A. Evans

King Harald Hardradi of Norway was both clever and ruthless. According to the ancient chronicler Snorri Sturluson, Harald showed these central aspects of his character when he attacked a fortified town in Sicily whose walls were too thick to breach:

“So Harald thought up a scheme: He told his bird-catchers to catch the small birds that nested within the town and flew out to the woods each day in search of food. Harald had small shavings of fir tied to the backs of the birds, and then he smeared the shavings with wax and sulphur to set fire to them.

“As soon as the birds were released, they all flew straight home to their young in their nests in the town; the nests were under the eaves of the roofs, which were thatched with reeds or straw. The thatched roofs caught fire from the birds, and although each bird could only carry a tiny flame, it quickly became a great fire. At that, all the people came out of the town, begging for mercy—the very same people who had been shouting defiant insults.”

As with the well-fortified Sicilian town, perfectionism’s weakness can be difficult to detect. Defined simply as “the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection,” perfectionism is in essence a good idea improperly applied.

Doubtless, the absence of error is a good thing; it’s what every claims department and adjuster should desire. However, insisting on perfection under the wrong circumstances can actually add to problems and bring about a lower level of performance.

In essence, perfectionism’s flaw is its failure to assess accurately the impact of genuine problems and obstacles. As expressed in this reflection on ignorance in the Taoist classic, Tao Te Ching, many difficulties arise simply from a failure to recognize (or acknowledge) one’s weaknesses: ”There is nothing better than to know that you don’t know. / Not knowing, yet thinking you know / This is sickness. / Only when you are sick of being sick / Can you be cured.”

Since perfectionism insists on a specific result no matter what the circumstances, it frequently can be a failure to look at the world realistically and honestly. By refusing to reward the best efforts of others, perfectionism can lead to demoralization or generate a sense of futility. By neglecting to acknowledge unknowns and uncertainty, it can foster significant errors in judgment. By insisting on the impossible, it can produce the careless mistakes and paralysis that so often accompany heightened anxiety.

Of course, avoiding perfectionism does not mean being resigned to mediocrity. Striving for excellence is necessary for success; without it, the performance of an individual or a department can quickly deteriorate. The pursuit of excellence means aiming high—even being relentless—but it also takes an honest assessment of resources and sticks to achievable goals.

Perhaps the ancient Greeks are among the best sources to look for the importance of the difference between perfectionism and excellence. The ethos of ancient Greek culture in general showed both a rejection of rigid thinking and a powerful longing for the heights of human performance. Striving after perfection was their common goal, but believing that it could be achieved was viewed as hubris—an arrogant and naïve foray into the realm of the gods.

In the estimation of the renowned classicist Edith Hamilton, the ancient Greek achievements in math, science, literature, government, philosophy, art, and architecture were largely due to the corporate understanding of the supreme importance of the pursuit of excellence. It was this driving force, combined with a deep value of creative thought, which allowed for accomplishments that were previously unparalleled in human history:

“In Greece, there was no dominating church or creed, but there was a dominating ideal that everyone would want to pursue if he caught sight of it,” wrote Hamilton. “Different men saw it differently; it was one thing to the artist, another to the warrior. ‘Excellence’ is the nearest equivalent we have to the word they commonly used for it, but it meant more than that. It was the utmost perfection possible, the very best and highest a man could attain to, which when perceived always has a compelling authority.”

The distinction may appear subtle at times, but understanding it can be the difference between success and failure. Knowing our natures, we see that we can’t reach perfection; knowing perfection’s value, we see the importance of striving for it all the more.  

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CPCU Society membership, the CPCU Society Ethics Committee, or the author’s employer.

Barrett A. Evans, CPCU, AIC, MDiv, MAC, is a regional claims manager for County Reinsurance, Ltd. in Clemmons, N.C. He is a member of the CPCU Ethics Committee and has been a CLM Fellow since 2012.


Hubris in Greek Myth

“Hubris” is the Greek term used for the excessive pride or foolish arrogance that led to the downfall of mortals. Here are some classic examples:

  • Phaëthon desperately wanted to drive the Sun god’s chariot. He was unable to control the Sun’s horses, though, which caused the chariot to drop dangerously low to the ground. When rivers began to dry up and the land started to scorch, the Earth herself cried out to Zeus for help. In order to save the world, the king of the gods was forced to kill Phaëthon with a thunderbolt.
  • Icarus was the son of a brilliant architect named Daedalus. In an effort to escape the tyranny of King Minos of Crete, Daedalus made two sets of wings so he could fly off the island with his son. Failing to heed his father’s warnings, Icarus flew too close to the sun. The glue on the wings began to weaken in the heat, and Icarus fell to his death in the sea.
  • Bellerophon thought he had earned a place with the gods after he defeated a monster called the Chimera. Accordingly, the brash hero bridled the winged horse Pegasus and attempted to ride him up to Mt. Olympus. Evidently having more of a sense of the dangers of hubris than his rider, Pegasus refused to complete the journey and bucked Bellerophon off his back in mid-flight.

Barrett A. Evans, CPCU, AIC, is a regional claims manager for County Reinsurance, Ltd. He is a member of the CPCU Ethics Committee and has been a CLM Fellow since 2012.

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