No Bare Feet and Other Lessons from the Caddie Yard - Lesson #4: It's Not About Perfection

May 01, 2023 by Mike Magluilo
Lesson #4: It’s Not About Perfection

I've experienced two perfect human accomplishments in my life: Guinness beer and the burritos at Allende in Chicago. Kissing the Holy Grail—twice—has helped me accept an otherwise thoroughly imperfect life.

Which reminds me of golf and swimming.

When people learn I was an Evans Scholar, they assume I’m a good golfer. I quickly clarify I suck at golf but had strong shoulders as a kid, which made me a good caddie. In fact, I probably wasn’t that great a caddie, either. I just kept showing up

Because I’m better at finding golf balls than hitting them, I spent years as a caddie in awe of the perfect golf swing. I’ve since learned the difference between a hack and a pro comes down to continuous progress toward a mastery of form requiring the power of a rocket, the grace of a swan and consistent hard work. 

I admire the golfers who diligently practice their setup, posture, grip, backswing and finish yet accept a near infinite number of atomic factors can still screw things up. Instead of throwing a tantrum—and their clubs—following an errant shot, they play on and return to practicing before their next round. 

Adult-onset swimming taught me similar lessons in mastery of form because no matter how far I reach, how solid my catch, how strong I pull, how powerful my roll, how forceful my kick or how streamlined my turn, I get smoked every day by other swimmers, regardless of age or gender. 

A couple years ago, a friend and former collegiate swimmer picked up on my frustration and told me it’s not about a perfect stroke or beating the swimmer in the next lane. It’s about earning your expectations.

The advice helped me put a few things related to swim strokes, golf swings and performance in general into perspective:
  • Perfection is an idealistic concept, which makes it hard to measure and impossible to attain (unless you sell burritos or beer)
  • Expectations, set correctly, are measurable, specific and relative to where you are today
  • You control the effort invested into earning your expectations
  • Comparing yourself to others hands control of your performance to your competition

On a more practical level, I asked myself the following questions with respect to swimming: 
  • Where am I today? I’m a middle-aged rookie with no competitive background and only a few hours a week to swim
  • Who is my competition? Instead of comparing myself to lifelong swimmers born with natural gifts and trained to streamline through the water from an early age, I decided to compare myself to my current abilities
  • What would be a reasonable expectation, both challenging and relevant to where I am today? I chose to focus on improving my endurance and speed and avoiding injury then set specific and measurable expectations for each of these goals
  • What can I control in order to earn my expectations? I set aside the time to swim consistently and increased my training frequency

Over the course of last summer, I swam two to three times per week, doubled the distance I could swim comfortably, shaved ten seconds off my 100-yard time and avoided injury by incorporating warm-up and cool-down routines into my workouts. Retirees still blow by me regularly, but I’m too focused on improving upon my last performance to let it bother me. 

Focusing on progress and expectations helped me see other areas of life where perfectionism has strained my emotional, psychological and physical health. For example, a fear of failure, a desire to please, placing too much weight on the judgment of others, analyzing decisions to the point of indecision, and obsessing over fitness and health at the expense of fun with family and friends.   

The exercise helped me reframe my relationship with unrealistic expectations and comparisons. It also made me aware of how deeply the pressure to be perfect has infiltrated modern-day life through scarcity, advertising, social media, wellness hacks, cosmetically-enhanced bodies and AI. 

How can an ambitious, determined person thrive in a healthy manner when bombarded with contrived images of perfection in everything from college admission to career to parenting to social media feeds to devices tracking our sleep, nutrition, heartrate, power output, blood chemistry, etc? 

I’m no therapist, but reframing my relationship with golf swings, swim strokes and other personal obsessions taught me the following: 
  • Nobody ever won by being perfect, because progress always prevails…records get broken, and new champions, companies, bestsellers and ideas emerge
  • Progress comes from earning expectations that are challenging yet realistic, specific and measurable, and judging yourself against your last performance
  • Sustainable success and resiliency live in a house built upon fundamentals, everyday habits, base training, learning, practice and failure. Burnout and over-use injuries drive a van fueled by short-cut hacks, cramming, chasing fads and leaving no time for mistakes

Goals and ambition are necessary for a productive, purposeful life—so is choosing what you want to be great at, and “everything” is not an option. You can be great at multiple things throughout the course of your life but not at the same time. Think about it this way: 
  • Life’s activities and dreams can be categorized into Six Ps: Profession (including education), Partner, Parenting, Personal (self-care, fitness, spiritual), Partying (social, community) and Philanthropy
  • Pick two to be great at and accept best efforts and good intentions for the rest
  • Be deliberate in shifting your priorities as life unfolds
  • Keep the Six Ps in mind if you parent an ambitious, determined young person  

And if you take only one thing away from this month’s riff on perfection, progress and earning your expectations, remember to treat yourself or a beer-drinking meat eater you love to a pint and burrito on Lincoln Avenue the next time you find yourself in Chicago.