This month, our Junior School students are focussing on excellence, which sounds like a good idea until you’re standing in front of two hundred inquiring faces.

Ranging in age from five to eleven, many of the students aren’t ready for presentations that are less than concrete. Last term I used the phrase “on the wrong path” to talk about that point when a conversation begins to become argumentative and hurtful. My carefully crafted message resulted in responses relating to the importance of not getting lost and knowing one’s way home. Perfectly good lessons to be sure. Not quite what I intended.

So I opened today by letting them know that excellence is a concept with which adults struggle. Because not everyone agrees on the nuances, I encouraged them to check out their thoughts with each other and take the conversation home to their parents for the dinner table. Then I took a breath and offered my core message.

Excellence and perfection are very different things.

For an initial example, I subjected myself to a math test. A cooperative colleague stood up and asked me three very simple questions, the school cheering with each correct answer (though the grade fives less so, because the questions were unimpressive). I then celebrated the fact that I had a perfect score and to increase my joy, I asked that the test be repeated.

The same three questions.

Again, I answered each one correctly and received my perfect score, but everyone knew that something had changed – it didn’t feel like there was much to celebrate.

My second example was an athletic challenge. I placed a soccer ball about two feet from a small net. My first goal was met with enthusiastic cheering. However, when I made my next two shots from the same spot, enthusiasm waned. It was becoming clear: perfect performances aren’t pleasurable in and of themselves. If I had shot from further away, kicking the ball over the students to reach the net – it would have been better, even if I had missed. Not only would it have felt better, by maintaining the habit, I would soon be playing better.

In order to embrace excellence, we can’t let perfection get in our way. We need math questions that are a little out of reach. We need obstacles that stand between us and the goal. Mistakes that lead to imperfect results on a given day need to be reframed as an essential part of long term learning and growth.

The third and final example dealt with relationships. I invited a colleague to the front and we both stood facing the students with a chair behind us. After greeting my friend, I stepped backwards and onto the chair. I explained that whenever my colleague and I got together, I was in charge. We always did what I wanted to do no matter what she wanted – 100% of the time. When I asked the students whether things were going perfectly my way, whether I was getting all I wanted, I received a resounding yes. However, when I asked whether the relationship embodied excellence, they said no. My partner and I switched places. Now she was figuratively above me, getting her way all the time. When I tested the situation with the students, I received the same answer. She may have been getting a perfect score from her point of view, but the relationship did not reflect excellence. It required the messiness of give and take, of shifting away from absolutes.

I tied up the message at that point, but its application is still rattling around in my adult mind. Although we instinctively know our preference for excellence over perfection when they appear side by side, it’s easy to become blind to the distinction in our daily lives. Whether we suffer to some degree with a preoccupation with appearance, a fixation with performance, or an obsession with winning (as opposed to resolving) our arguments, perfection often interferes with what really matters.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s some wisdom from one of our grade four students, Lucy McArdle. Her journal reflection from later in the morning read,

“PERFECTION is not challenging yourself enough. Yes you are perfect, but not excellent… EXCELLENCE is challenging yourself so that it is not very easy, but not too hard. It’s about making mistakes that you can learn from.”

I’ve tacked her words to the bulletin board above my desk. Who doesn’t need to be reminded of the value of excellence and a few well-calculated risks?