Jon Bowers: Can Striving For Perfection Help Us Learn From Our Failures?

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 11:16 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Setbacks.

About Jon Bowers's TED Talk

Everyone makes mistakes, but sometimes mistakes have big consequences. Jon Bowers argues that we should always strive for perfection—knowing we will fail and we have to learn from those failures.

About Jon Bowers

Jon Bowers works as a training manager for Intergrad Atlanta at UPS. Through a combination of 3D computer simulations, hands-on learning, and traditional classroom teaching, Bowers helps ensure that the millions of miles that UPS-ers drive every year are driven safely.

Bowers's 15 years of logistical operations experience at UPS has convinced him of the value of quality training and high expectations. He also holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Georgia.

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OK, so Charly was just saying that, like, perfectionism is holding us back - right? - that, you know, that we could just do the best we can. That's good enough. But - but you - you think about this differently, right?

JON BOWERS: Well, I mean, certainly that's what I've heard. And I think that's probably the accepted truth. But what I would argue is that good enough is actually a destructive way to think about things.

RAZ: This is Jon Bowers. He works for UPS training drivers. And Jon says that, actually, we should all be perfectionists.

BOWERS: I think that, you know, if we continue to just accept that we're trying our best or we're doing good enough as it is, we're not going to grow or improve or advance our society. We didn't get to where we're at now by allowing things to stay status quo or saying that, you know, I tried my best, and that's as much as I can do. We got to where we are now by saying, you know, although I did try my best, I didn't obtain my goal.

RAZ: Yeah.

BOWERS: And so I'm going to try again. And now the next time, I'm going to do better. So I think when I present this argument for perfectionism, that's really the key point, is that it's not intended to say that we won't fail. It's intended to say that we will fail. But it's how we address that failure and how we use it to continue on our path towards perfection in whatever aspect of life we choose.

RAZ: Here's more from Jon Bowers on the TED stage.


BOWERS: I think that we should all seek perfection all the time. You see, I run a training facility where I'm responsible for the education of professional delivery drivers. And in my line of work, we have a unique understanding with the cost of failure, the cost of just 99% - because in the world of professional driving, just 99% of the job means somebody dies. Look, a hundred people die every day due to vehicular crashes. That's like the equivalent of four commercial airliners crashing every week. Yet, we still can't convince ourselves to pay perfect attention behind the wheel.

So I teach my drivers to value perfection. That's why I have them memorize our 131-word defensive driving program perfectly. Then I have them rewrite it. One wrong word, one misspelled word, one missing comma, it's a failed test. It's why I do uniform inspections daily. Undershirts are white or brown only. Shoes are black or brown polished leather. And frankly, don't come to my class wrinkled and expect me to let you stay. It's why I insist that my drivers are on time. Don't be late, not to class, not to break, not to lunch. When you're supposed to be somewhere, be there.

You see, I do this so that my students understand that when I'm training them to drive a car and I say clear every intersection, they understand that I mean every traffic signal, every cross street, every side street, every parking lot, every dirt road, every crosswalk - every intersection without fail. So I don't allow my drivers to lose focus. And I don't accept anything less than perfection out of them. And you know what? I'm tired of everybody else accepting 99% is good enough.

I mean, being less than perfect has real consequences, doesn't it? If our doctors were only 99.9% correct, then every year, 4,453,000 prescriptions would be written incorrectly. And probably even scarier, 11 newborns would be given to the wrong parents every day in the United States. Trying our best is not good enough.


RAZ: I mean, when you put it like - so this whole episode is about setbacks and, you know, how you bounce back from setbacks. And the thing is, is that there's a whole culture out there, especially in tech now, that says, you know, embrace failure. Like, you should walk through the door being like, I'm going to fail...

BOWERS: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...Today. It's almost like that.

BOWERS: Right.

RAZ: Right? Do you think that that is - I don't know. Do you think that's a positive trend?

BOWERS: I think that, you know, in many ways, that trend is not different than what I'm saying. You know, we - we absolutely will fail. And so I think in the tech industry, that's really the mantra, is that, you know, you cannot be afraid to fail. I think the difference and the dangerous point of that mentality is when we say that, you know, failure is OK, and that's the end point, that we're just going to accept the fact that we couldn't do any better, that we, quote, "tried our best," and that's the end of the road or the avenue, so to speak.

So in many ways, that, don't be afraid to fail; go for it, is the same message that I'm presenting when I'm presenting the the idea of working towards perfectionism. It's just the outcome of that has to be when I do fail, how do I react to that failure?

RAZ: I guess - I guess what I'm wondering is, like, when you talk about perfection as, like, a North Star or a goal or the thing we should strive for, you - you implicitly accept that it's actually impossible to be perfect all the time. But by striving for it, you are going to achieve something more meaningful for you and for the people that you serve. I guess, is that sort of what you're saying?

BOWERS: Yeah, I think that's a very accurate way to depict what I'm saying when I think that we - I say that we should value perfectionism. It's, you know, understanding it's not an attainable goal but having that as the goal. And settling for nothing less is ultimately going to drive us closer to that perfection point.


BOWERS: Knowing that we won't reach there, but if we continue to set that as the goal, we're going to continue to drive closer to it.


BOWERS: Trying to be perfect is so stressful, right? And, you know, Oprah talked about it. Universities study it. I bet your high school counselor even warned you about it. Stress is bad for us, isn't it? Well, maybe, but to say that seeking perfection is too stressful is like saying that exercise is too exhausting. In both cases, if you want the results, you got to endure the pain. So truthfully, saying that seeking perfection is too stressful is just an excuse to be lazy.

But here's the really scary part. Today, doctors, therapists and the nearly $10 billion-a-year self-help industry are all advocating against the idea of perfection under this guise that somehow not trying to be perfect will save your self-esteem and protect your ego. But, see, it's not working because the self-help industry today has a high recidivism rate because it's more focused on teaching you how to accept being a failure and lower your acceptance level than it is about pushing you to be perfect. See, these doctors, therapists and self-help gurus are all focused on a symptom and not the illness.

The true illness in our society today is our unwillingness to confront failure. See, we're more comfortable resting on our efforts than we are with focusing on our results - like - like at Douglas Jerome High School (ph) in Ohio, where they named 30% of a graduating class valedictorian. I mean, come on, right? Somebody had the highest GPA. I guarantee you it wasn't a 72-way tie.


BOWERS: If we continue to cultivate this culture where nobody fails or nobody is told that they will fail, then nobody is going to reach their potential either. Failure and loss are necessary for success. It's the acceptance of failure that's not. Michelangelo's credited with saying that the greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but it's too low, and we reach it. Failure should be a motivating force, not some type of pathetic excuse to give up.

So I have an idea. Instead of defining perfectionism as a destructive intolerance for failure, why don't we try giving it a new definition? Why don't we try defining perfectionism as a willingness to do what is difficult to achieve what is right? You see, then we can agree that failure is a good thing in our quest for perfection. And when we seek perfection without fear of failure, just think about what we can accomplish. We could stop living in a world filled with the consequences of good enough. Thank you.


RAZ: That's Jon Bowers. He runs training programs for UPS. You can find his full talk at


JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Oh, she knows...

JOHNNY CASH AND JUNE CARTER CASH: (Singing) ...Life has its little ups and downs, like ponies on a merry-go-round. And no one grabs a brass ring every time. But she don't mind.

JUNE CARTER CASH: (Singing) I don't mind.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on setbacks this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out the TED app or Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and J.C. Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin and Katie Monteleone. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


JOHNNY CASH AND JUNE CARTER CASH: (Singing) And it's mine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.