The Best Perfect

Sue Callaway Working Parent

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per·fec·tion per-'fek-shuhn n. 1: the state or quality of being or becoming perfect 2: the highest degree of proficiency, skill or excellence


I almost missed the deadline for this confession about my obsession with perfection. I was too busy trying to optimize every word, rather than getting it done and moving on to the next item on my towering to-do list.

Chasing perfection is one of the dumber habits one can acquire, but unfortunately I acquired it so young that by the time I realized the futility of it, the need to chase that elusive carrot was baked all the way in. Although I like to think of myself as a reasonable and reasonably bright person, when it comes to getting things exactly right, I’m like a cat with a fake mouse that endlessly paw-swipes at the stuffed rodent, expecting to finally be able to kill it once and for all. Maybe if I just swipe a different way…

I can’t take credit for the earliest roots of the problem.

No, I give that honor to both of my parents, love them though I do. My mother, for instance, taught me that you simply do not mix pinks when selecting an outfit. It has taken decades for me, therefore, to not only boldly mix shades of rose, but also mix pink with orange—or braver, browns and navies. On tough school mornings (or is that redundant?), if I was scowling, my mother would send me back upstairs until I could come back down smiling.

My father, in his attempt to instill the importance of perfection, always seemed to instead provoke the imperfect in me. From the age of 7 on, he’d take us skiing each year. And each year, he’d trick me and tell me that the big chairlift we were on led to green/beginner’s slopes—when in fact they dropped us off at the terrifying tops of double-black-diamond runs. He’d swish down, then stand at the bottom, patiently awaiting—inviting!—my failure. Most often, I delivered, with a backwards butt-slide, skis popped and poles akimbo all the way to meet him.

He didn’t reserve such brutality for the slopes. My father was also the one who looked at a report card in high school with six A’s and one B+ and asked sternly, “Why not seven A’s?!”

With that set-up, pulling my need for perfection into my professional life was a no-brainer. When a long-ago boss offered me a promotion of considerable magnitude, I had the temerity to make a “Wizard of Oz” reference. “Oh, so you want the broomstick, do you?” I said to him. When he looked perplexed, I continued, “The broomstick—of the Wicked Witch of the West. You want the nearly impossible.” So of course I accepted the position, which entailed pretty much single-handedly turning around a broken brand without proper budget or team support. Yep, you can guess how that ended.

I have more recently devoted my lifeblood to starting a company that ranks things. Yep—I have used ridiculously smart programmers to architect an algorithm that automatically measures a thing’s relative perfection.

My obsession with being the best naturally carries easily from work into my home. “Am I wearing the right outfit?” “How fat will I get if I eat that mac ‘n’ cheese?” “Have I spent anywhere near enough quality time with my children?” “I can’t go to sleep—I have so much work to do.” “I don’t work out enough to make up for that mac’n’cheese.” And so they echo in my head, my self-recriminations for being so solidly mortal. Of course, the more I strive to be perfect across multiple fronts, the more frustrated I become at the delta between the ideal and my reality. And therefore, the farther away from my self-imposed goal I am.

From time to time, the occasionally cruel universe serves me up a taste of that yummy elixir of perfection—which reignites my belief that it IS possible. “Yes—that’s PERFECT!” my trainer tells me once every blue moon when I get a rep just right. Ahhhhhh. The word feels so good I can almost taste it.

But just when I thought I was a hopeless case (as you do by now, dear readers), two things happened. The first: I had a fantastically gifted therapist shock me by interrupting a particularly emotional rant to say, “I wish you’d stop trying to be so perfect—it’s your flaws that are your best qualities.” Rarely a day passes when I don’t think of her words.

The second thing that happened: I had my daughter. One look at her pure, old-soul face and it hit me that that is what real perfection looks like. I was so grateful to her for this gift that I had another baby, a son, two years later. He, too, was perfect, but in a completely different way. Who knew perfection could have so many faces?

Now, when I really start winding myself up about doing something better, I look at those two faces. I have to smile, secretly promise myself I won’t give this bug to them, and breathe again. Sometimes the simplest answers—and the most profound—are right in front of you asking for you to read a bedtime story.

Our favorite new family game is to go around the dinner table and celebrate a failure from each of our days. I figure it’s preventative medicine for them and ongoing remedial training for me.

About the Author

Sue Callaway

Sue Callaway is the founder and CEO of , a contributor to Fortune and She helped launch Esquire Gentleman, Esquire Sportsman, Men’s Journal and Civilization magazines before becoming a senior editor at Fortune. She left journalism to be the Director of Marketing for Ford’s luxury brands and later became VP and General Manager of Jaguar Cars NA. Sue co-authored the internationally best-selling book "What Would Jackie Do?" And if that isn't bad-assed enough, she is the co-creator of Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit.

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