69: Can You Be Excellent Without Being Perfect?

by Coach Gabriella Dennery MD and Coach Jill Farmer | Physician Coaching, Podcast

“Excellence is a process. It’s a journey. It’s a discovery.  And Perfectionism just kind of stops everything cold in its tracks.” – Coach Gabriella Dennery MD

In this episode, Lead Coaches Gabriella Dennery MD and Jill Farmer ponder the question: Can you be excellent without being perfect? In order to answer that, first they break down the definitions of perfectionism and excellence and tell us what distinguishes the two. Turns out, there is a huge difference between being perfect and being excellent. And what’s more is that striving to be perfect can often hinder us and keep us stagnant. But striving for excellence is freeing and leads to discovery while accomplishing what you set out to do. Tune in to hear why excellence is key. 

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Please find the full transcript below

Gabriella: Excellence is a process. It’s a journey. It’s a discovery.  And Perfectionism just kind of stops everything cold in its tracks.


Hi, welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. My name is Gabriella Dennery, MD, Life Coach at DocWorking. 


Jill: I’m Jill Farmer, one of the other Life Coaches at DocWorking, and along with Gabriela, one of the co-hosts of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Today, we are going to be talking about the difference between excellence and perfectionism. So, Gabriella, what do you see as the differences between excellence and perfectionism? 


Gabriella: Oh, I think there are really many but let’s talk about one fundamental difference between excellence and perfectionism. Can you be excellent and not be perfect? The answer is absolutely, yes, and this is why. Perfectionism tends to focus on results. Did I see enough patients? [laughs] Did I prescribe the exact right medication for every single one of them? I’m thinking of things that I would experience as a primary care doc. What is the boss going to think of me? What is the administrator going to think of me? Etc., etc. It’s externally driven, and it’s also based on criteria that, frankly, are they realistic? Often, they’re not. 


Excellence, on the other hand, has to do not with the end result, but it has to do with a process. Have I done the best I could? Yes, absolutely. Am I learning something new? Am I innovating? Am I looking at different ideas? Am I asking questions? Am I opening myself up to possibility? Now, that’s being an excellence. Excellence is very much a freeing experience as opposed to perfectionism, which tends to make things really, really, really small. Because then it touches into, “Well, I’m not perfect. I’m not good enough.” It touches into judgments and old beliefs as we want to get out of that. That’s the difference for me between excellence and perfection. I can honestly say that I’m excellent, because not only that I do the best I could to the best of my ability and knowledge, but I opened myself up to learning something new. That’s excellence. If I’m perfect, then I think I have to try and figure it all out by myself, and that never works out terribly well. What do you think Jill? The difference between excellence and perfectionism? 


Jill: Oh, you just hit the nail on the head. Another way, I think, to add to that is perfectionism is constricting. It is fear based. ‘I’m worried, just in case, I better,” versus a pursuit of excellence, which is full of possibility. There’s a lot more motivation, and flow, and the ability to grow to me when we are looking at possibility as opposed to constriction, which I think is directly correlated to perfectionism in my own life. I think to even just go back to the dictionary definition, it’s interesting. Perfection is the condition, state or quality of being free from flaws or defects. To me, that means it’s the condition of being inhuman. Because we as humans innately have flaws and defects. That’s what makes us interesting. Whereas, excellence is the quality of being outstanding or extremely good. It’s a quality of moving forward. I just like that reshaping or reframing the way we think about these things in our head, I think just helps us, and helps me certainly. 


When I’m looking for excellence, I’m like, “What can I do to enhance this, to make it better, to be in deeper service?” There’s just a motivation there versus how do I make this perfect. I’m just scanning the horizon for fear of threats. That’s just never where I think I shine. So, what do you think about that, thinking about the definitions going back to the dictionary on that? 


Gabriella: Yeah, I tell you, the dictionary is my best friend. [laughs] Sometimes, we can just group definitions or words together thinking that they’re exactly the same thing and they’re not. I want to just piggyback on what you just said, Jill, that perfectionism, part of it is earning approval. I’m trying to get somebody’s stamp of approval. If I get that stamp of approval, then I’m a good person, and I’ve done right. Excellence, it doesn’t look for a stamp of approval, either internal or external. Really, it’s about as you said, “How can I improve? How can I do better?”


One example for me is, I’m a musician, and I compose music, and I love that process. Whenever I look for perfectionist, “Oh, is this the right note?” Then, of course, I never finish a piece. But if I look at the process, I did the best I could with what I have and what I know, five years later, I may look at the same piece knowing, “Okay, I’ve learned a few things since then, and now if I were to redo the piece, I would add a few other things, or expand the dimension, or ask such and such colleague, or producer for their input.” 


Something, I didn’t know, five years ago, but to be happy with the result that it was in the moment, I think that too is part of excellence, as opposed to it’s not good enough. Because if it’s not good enough, I’ll constantly be chasing for what is and based on whose criteria. If I stopped the chase and say, “You know what? Right now, it’s good, because this is what I can do, and I’m happy with it.” Then, later on, when I’ve learned a few more things, it expands.


Of course, it’s not just music, it’s just about anything. If I’m cooking a meal, then yeah, it’s as good as it’s going to get right here in the moment, and [laughs] I’m happy with it, and I’m eating well, and I’m feeling satisfied. If I decided to cook the same recipe next time, how can I improve this? How can I make it better? Then, go there. That excellence is a process, it’s a journey, it’s a discovery, and perfectionism just stops everything cold in its tracks.  We want to be in that discovery mode.


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Jill: I think that’s all just beautifully said, and it reminds me of a situation I had with a really fun physician client a few years ago, actually a surgeon. He was beating himself up for perfectionism, and everybody’s always said, “You’re too much of a perfectionist.” It was having some consequences on health and relationships, some of the things that perfectionism does, because it creates this constriction, and fear, and we make it difficult for ourselves more striving for perfection in all areas. What he realized in our conversation that, he was thinking that the opposite of perfectionism or being perfect was failure. When you think about excellence as being an alternative to perfectionism, people a lot of times are afraid to give up perfectionism, because we think that means don’t care about anything, just let it go to hell. Who cares, right? It just means you’re not caring, or you’re not performing, or you’re not excelling. It’s not that. I know as a coach, Gabriella and I both want all of you to experience the joy and the meaning of growth, and what comes in the mastery of being in the process of experiencing that excellence that can come from all the hard work that you put into and the mastery of the experience you have. It’s not like we’re saying, don’t be perfectionist, be failures. But I think sometimes we have that imprint in our brains, and I’ve heard it in my physician clients. I certainly have in my own brain at times, and I think it’s important to remember that as well. 


Gabriella: How about reframing what failure means? Because when we take risks, which is what excellence is, you’re expanding your territory. You’re going into the unknown. There’s a chance of failure. Is it a bad thing, Jill? How do we reframe this whole notion of failure, especially for physicians? 


Jill: Yeah, that’s important. I’ve said this before here. Some of the most successful people in the world credit their ability to move through failure and to use failure as data with their success. Richard Branson is somebody who very famously welcomes failure, because he’s like, “Failure is data. Failure is where we make the shift to understand what didn’t work, which often is really important in getting us to what will work.” I think that’s important. I once had an academic physician tell me, “In research often it’s the failed hypothesis that leads to the biggest breakthrough.” To remember that, to keep a broad enough lens to remember that, it can help us take those things that are what I often call and what we talked about here as plot twists, or mistakes, or failures as information that can actually be an ingredient of excellence. 


Gabriella: Absolutely, I agree 100%. That means that the physician who said, “Well, if it’s not perfect, then it’s a failure,” we should say, “Yeah, you got it. [laughs] That’s exactly right. Let’s celebrate that,” because that means doors are open. 


Jill: Excellent ideas. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and being part of this conversation as always, Gabriella. And thanks to all of you for joining, and we love having you here. Until next time, this is DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. 


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Life Coach Gabriella Dennery, MD OMD is passionate about helping busy physicians rediscover the joy of their calling. She draws on her training as a physician, a musician, and an ordained non-denominational minister in addition to health & wellness and life coaching to offer professionals from all walks of life the benefit of her broad experience and deep insights.

You can find Gabriella as one of the co-creators of STAT: Quick Wins To Get Your Life Back.

The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and a neurosurgeon father, both from Haiti, Gabriella and her five siblings were expected to choose from five noble callings: Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, or Agronomy (caring for the delicate soil of Haiti).

Gabriella, an innately gifted healer and teacher, chose Medicine and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine, “The Mecca.” Following her residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Gabriella moved to New York City to serve as an attending physician and clinical instructor in Harlem and later as medical director and attending physician at SUNY Downstate Bedford-Stuyvesant satellite clinic in Brooklyn.

Her greatest joy as a primary care physician was supporting her patients, shepherding them to Aha moments, and nurturing positive shifts in perspective that measurably improved their health and wellbeing–a strength that makes Gabriella so effective as a coach.

After more than ten years of practicing internal medicine, Gabriella chose to explore the integration of medicine, music, and ministry to promote better health of her fellow physicians by becoming a physician coach. She successfully coaches physicians to prevent and/or navigate through physician burnout, reach career and personal goals, clarify and take actionable steps to achieve their own personal vision, and is well known for helping doctors at all stages of their careers, from students to residents/fellows to practicing physicians. She maintains her work-life balance by playing percussion and violin, composing music, and enjoying a very fun and fulfilling marriage.

Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.

She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.

She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.

Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.

Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.

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