We live in a world where, increasingly, we expect perfection. Perhaps we don’t always admit that to ourselves, but it is evident in our behaviour when things go wrong. The smartphone that breaks, the train that is delayed, our child’s poor test scores, the outbreak of a virus. When these things happen, the predominant tendency is to cast around to find the person responsible, then complain, protest or sue to obtain an apology, compensation and – most of all – a promise that it will never happen again. New regulations, better technology, improved education, more effort, more money. If we only apply enough of these, then nothing need ever go wrong again. When improvements fail to materialise, we look elsewhere for perfection. Switch suppliers, move to another country, find a new partner. This constant quest for perfection is so ingrained in our society that we rarely even notice it, let alone challenge it. This series of posts will look at the effect of our desire for perfection on various aspects of our lives. This final post – paradoxically: the importance of striving for perfection
Throughout this series of posts about perfection, I have pointed out the pitfalls of perfectionism. How in everything – people, societies, solutions – good comes paired with bad, positive with negative, benefit with cost, and it is impossible to gain the one without accepting the other. How what we see as perfection differs widely, and also changes over time. And finally, how demanding perfection can actually make things worse, when we pursue it regardless of the consequences.
All of this would seem to be enough evidence to convict perfectionism, and sentence it to be permanently banished from our lives. But, paradoxically, I would argue that despite all its drawbacks and dangers, we need perfectionism.
The alternative to perfectionism that is most often suggested is a mantra that my children regularly repeat: ‘I’m fine as I am’. This is an important truth that, even though I can’t yet truly accept it, offers me my first glimpse of an escape from decades of feeling inadequate. Yet, when it comes from my children’s lips, my hackles rise. For me, this truth is a foundation, a secure starting point. If I am fine as I am, then I can decide what I want to improve about myself out of a desire for more, rather than being harried by my fear of not being good enough. For my children, on the other hand, this truth is a conclusion, a dead end. When they forget to do their homework, when they throw a tantrum, when they can’t do a difficult game, they regard this as a simple fact of nature. They are forgetful, they have a bad temper, the game is too difficult. And there is nothing they need to do to change that, because they are fine as they are.
I am fairly confident that my daughters will outgrow this. They have enough passion and ambition that at some point they will see the need to take on their own shortcomings in order to get where they want to go. But they are far from being the only ones with this attitude. Attempting to improve yourself means making changes, taking a step out of your familiar bubble into the unknown. ‘I’m fine as I am’ is a great way of avoiding this risk, while reframing your fear as pride in yourself.
Beyond self-improvement, it is tempting in general to use the impossibility of achieving perfection as an excuse for not even trying to improve things. The old style was to ‘grin and bear it’. Nowadays, the trend for mindfulness, for finding ways to cope with a situation rather than changing it, is a wonderful way of achieving serenity in the face of things we cannot change. Yet it is also the enemy of finding the courage to change the things that we can.
Our fear of attempting improvements is based not only on a fear of failure, but also on a fear of making things worse. This can be exploited by those who have a vested interest in the status quo. This technique is parodied brilliantly – but chillingly – in Animal Farm, where the animal inhabitants of a farm have been freed from the regime of Farmer Jones, only to be subjected to an even crueler regime by the pigs, who have taken control. Any attempts to improve their lot are invariably met with the threat that this could bring Jones back: ‘Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back?’. Unfortunately, this tactic is not confined to fiction. Raising the spectre of something terrible, be it Communism, starving children in Africa or even – in recent months – the coronavirus, is often enough to instantly silence any calls for change.
Perfectionists are often notoriously bad team-players, refusing to delegate or consult others as they might deviate from the perfectionist’s own ‘perfect’ way of doing things. But those who believe everything is fine as it is are also pretty poor in a team. They brush off any criticism as being negative, and avoid criticizing others in their turn. A team full of such people exists in a haze of comforting denial. It may be harmonious, but they don’t achieve much.
Perfectionism requires us, first of all, to formulate our idea of what perfection is – in essence to decide what we really want. Perfectionism doesn’t permit us to stand still. It goads us on to greater efforts, to come closer to our ideal. These are all positive things. Where perfectionism goes wrong is in the assumption that perfection is a goal that must be achieved. This makes it impossible for us to weigh up the costs and benefits, to compromise or to consider alternatives, and places us permanently in the depressing position of falling short of an unattainable target.
To my mind, perfection should serve as a reference point, not a goal. I compare it to a compass. Very few of us are ever going to travel to the North pole. But defining it as a point of reference allows us to plan our journeys, navigate to a destination and know where we are along the way. A vision of perfection should inspire us and encourage us to efforts and achievements that we didn’t think we were capable of. But we should measure our progress in terms of our starting point, being proud of how far we have come, instead of torturing ourselves with the distance still remaining. And it is also essential to keep track of the costs of that progress, to recognize the point at which they become too high, for ourselves or for others. We must always grasp the individuality of our view of perfection, to understand that a step towards heaven for us may seem like a short-cut to hell to others. Finally, we shouldn’t be afraid of mistakes. The path to perfection is not a single signposted road, but an exploration of unknown territory. Like the alchemist who discovered phosphorus instead of the philosopher’s stone, or Columbus who set out for the East Indies and discovered America, we never know what wonderful discoveries may lie in wait when we lose our way.
“Perfection is what you are striving for, but perfection is an impossibility. However, striving for perfection is not an impossibility. Do the best you can under the conditions that exist. That is what counts.” –John Wooden