Perfection is Not the Goal

Two Cubes

No one would mistake me for a perfectionist.

When I think of perfectionism, the garden variety perfectionism that comes to mind has to do with completing tasks exactly right, redoing what isn’t perfect, endlessly researching a new gadget in order to make sure that you get the exact right one. This perfectionism is an exacting and unforgiving search that typically leaves the practitioner dissatisfied.  

This isn’t me at all. If you’ve been reading this blog, I’m sure you’ve noticed a number of misspellings and missing punctuation in my posts. Leda and I often use the motto, “done is better than good!” We apply this attitude liberally to our writing, a great number of sloppy craft projects, cooking, buying a new shirt; anything that can suffice will do just fine.

I like to plunge right into things, and I’ve never met a corner that I haven’t wanted to at least trim quite a bit. I am happier just getting things done, rather than reworking to improve by a minute amount. But I’ve been surprised recently to realize that there is a streak of perfectionism in me; an insidious strand that winds its way down to the ultimate pursuit: being the person I want to be.

I recognize the dissatisfaction of perfectionism here. It shows up in a big way: I am constantly striving to do more– more research, more work, learning more about myself– to be better. All with the idea that, one day in the future, I will be that perfect person. Once perfect, I will no longer get frustrated with coworkers; I will no longer avoid bringing up difficult topics; I will not longer get upset when my mom puts unwanted food on my plate. Once perfect, I will be able to get through all of life’s challenges with grace; I will be kinder, more accomplished, and happier.

To take just one specific and simple example, I realized that I had an idea that I should be comfortable in all social situations. When I’m not, when I feel awkward or out of place, I think that I’m the problem. I was a shy kid, and generally felt uncomfortable in all social situations outside of my normal routine. As I’ve gotten older, gathered more social skills and become more comfortable with myself, I’ve come to feel much more comfortable in many, many situations. The logical extension of this progress (at least in my subconscious mind) is that I should keep developing myself to eventually feel comfortable in ALL situations. That, my subconscious tells me, is the goal. Then, I will have finally become the person I want to be.

But why would this be true?

I hope, reader, that you were wary of this from the beginning. That you noticed the “should” in the first sentence and thought yourself, “But why should she? No one feels comfortable all the time! No one is perfect.”

Perfectionism is full of shoulds, and full of the hubris that we can arrive there– at a perfect poem, a perfect life, a perfect way of being– through our own efforts. Sometimes, I imagine perfection as a physical place, a location I can get to with enough time, effort and self-improvement schemes.

This idea of perfectionism is a total mirage, of course, one that is incredibly tempting. We think that if we just go a bit farther, try harder… if we just make more money, found the right job… if we just were more grateful, or meditated for 20 minutes a day, or called our grandmother more often. Then, only then, but definitely then, life would be perfect; we would be perfect.

This is dangerous thinking.

Perfection is not a real place. We know that nothing in life is stable and unchanging. If there even were a place of perfection that we could arrive at, the rest of life would get in the way, always changing on us. There is no life accomplishment that will get us to the perfect place, not physically or in any other way.

But more importantly, this idea of perfection implies that there is something that we are missing now, something wrong that needs to be fixed or improved.  In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath the shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”

The truth is that we are good enough, all of us. Good enough is not the same as perfect. It means being ok with the imperfection. It means that self-improvement schemes should not be taken too seriously. They should come from a place of love and curiosity. Experimenting with different ways of being for the enjoyment of it, rather than from the deep well of “not enough.”

It means admitting to our imperfections, voicing our struggles, flaws, and hopeless desires for something different. Indeed, it’s these admissions that make us the relatable, endearing people that we are.  It’s these custom imperfections, not our quest for perfection, that allows us to connect to others, the very people we are trying to impress with perfection.  

The problem, therefore, is not our lack of perfection, only that we forget that perfection was never the right goal.


Image: “Two Cubes (Demonstrating The Stereometric Method)” by Naum Gabo  (1930)