Monday’s Meditation: On Perfection & Perfectionism
I’m fascinated by the idea of perfectionism. In fact, I’m convinced that in American culture and others like it, we spend far too little time dwelling on the notion of perfection, so adamant are we about shunning it as a wicked and unfair standard to which we shouldn’t subject ourselves.
When we see a young child who displays perfectionistic tendencies, we think to correct them. We furrow our brows, worry about how they will get on. We think to de-intensify their approach, tell them things like “All that matters is that you try your hardest.” We think to do anything other than admire them. Admire their innate dedication to the comprehensive set of details that encompasses one whole entity.
Perfection has an intrinsic relationship to details. Indeed, perfection must be thought of as the point at which every detail has been attended to and executed in its ideal version.
There is not one among us who can claim that details aren’t significant, that, in fact, it is always the details which impress us most; the mark of a fine establishment, be it restaurant or hotel, is consistently the attention to the details involved in the customer experience. The details in great works of art are always what captivate us. And so on. We know how very much the details matter. And yet we contrarily dismiss perfectionism and thus the significance of details. We know better.
Why, then, do we view the quest for perfection as negative? One reason is that we resent the accepted universal representations of ideals because we had no involvement or control in defining them—magazines and billboards suffocate us on a daily basis with images that proclaim the perfect body type, for instance. We see those images and we look to our own forms, which do not mirror them precisely, and we can be left to feel nothing other than haunting inadequacy.
And yet, though we decry the mainstream definition of perfection, most of us cannot help ourselves but to abide by it, to spend our lives attempting to fulfill it, to fit into it. We push and bend and break ourselves to match the picture that has been painted by someone else, called the ideal, and therefore the only—the subliminal message of which is: if you aren’t engaged in trying to reach our predetermined idea of perfection, you are wasting your time.
That, I will readily admit, is the ugly underbelly of perfectionism. To hold yourself to a standard of surface-level perfection which you are merely a subscriber of rather than an inventor, there is no real strength in that.
But we cannot, therefore, dismiss perfection in all arenas as evil. To expect perfect performance and execution in every role and aspect of our lives may be crippling. But there is a form of perfection far closer to us than mass produced conceptions, and that is perfection in our chosen work.
In regards to the pursuit of perfection in our chosen craft, it’s possible that we reject it because we just don’t want to try all that hard. Above all, we don’t want to try so very hard if we aren’t going to win. This is most certainly a country of self-regarded winners. Sensing that losing in the game of perfection is inevitable, our tendency is to refuse to play rather to subject ourselves to possible loss.
I acknowledge that perfectionism, when it impairs our ability to take action, so paralyzed are we by the fear of creating something less than perfect, or when it causes us to advance to our desired endpoint by using harmful measures, is counterproductive. But to blatantly and across the board dismiss perfection by calling it an impossibility— that is to give up prematurely. That is to allow yourself to live by a standard of “passable,” and there is no medal of honor, I’m afraid, for creating passable work.
It is clear to me that to believe in the reality of perfection in regards to our work is the only way. If not because we will actually live to achieve it than because to continue to strive for it is an integral part of life. If we wish to make any real mark on this world, we must believe perfection is possible. We must believe it even when all evidence points to the contrary, and when on a daily basis, we fall short of reaching it. Even then, we must cling to it, we must remind ourselves of its existence as further encouragement to continue striving.
It is a relentless task. It is getting up each and every morning and attempting to do it better than you did yesterday. It is doing the same thing over and over and over and falling just short every single time, and all the while refusing to desist. It is tiring, the pursuit of perfection. It is utterly exhausting, as it requires our wholly invested effort and focus, an ability that seems to wane with each technological advancement that bursts onto the scene.
It is still your choice. But I say: don’t let yourself off the hook. Don’t settle for less than the vastness of what you might accomplish if you apply yourself unrelentingly and with a steady fervor for your craft. I say live by the standard of perfection, rather than relinquishing yourself to a life of just alright.
Do it with all your might, all the time. Then, I promise, even if you never reach it, your unceasing striving to improve will have created great work of which you can be most proud.
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