We love the idea of perfectionism: the image of the master craftsman with uncompromising integrity, relentlessly working the details until it is done exactly right.
But the real master craftsman is the one who knows when something is done well enough that he can release his project and move onto the next one. Don’t get me wrong: his standards are high, but not at perfection. Perfection is an abstraction, a mathematical concept that doesn’t translate to the real world. We can describe a perfect circle, but can we cook a perfect meal, or build a perfect house, or write a perfect novel? Can your house be perfectly clean, or can you raise perfect children, or can you come up with the perfect solution to a problem?
Perfectionists get stuck in a loop of effort and frustration, trying to make something perfect. They never turn out perfect work, because perfection is unattainable. And because they cannot recognize that what they’ve done is good enough for their purposes (even though the standards might be very high), they achieve very little. Usually, they get frustrated and walk away from what they are trying to do or refuse to try. But they don’t let it go; it eats them up inside. They are not often happy people.
While the perfectionist miserably stews about the imperfections of the world and his inability to fix it, the winners have figured out how to get things done close enough to perfect in order to move on to their next challenge.
The paradox of perfection is illustrated by the story of a a mathematician and an engineer, who find themselves magically transported to a vast hall with a beautiful woman at one end. An ethereal voice tells them that at the top of each hour, with the ringing of the clock’s bells, they may advance half the distance to the woman.
The mathematician immediately throws up his hands in disgust. “Well, what’s the point? At that rate, I’ll never get there.”
But as the first bell rings, the engineer enthusiastically runs halfway across the hall. “Are you crazy?” shouts the mathematician from the starting point, where he has sat down and given up. “Don’t you realize that by halving the distance, you will never get to her?” “That’s OK,” shouts back the engineer. “Eventually, I’ll get close enough for my purposes!”
Perfection is an abstraction, a mathematical concept unattainable in human endeavors. Perfectionists often quit, because reality can never live up to their standards, and they would rather not try than to try and fail. They are not usually happy people. Winners know that eventually, with hard work, creativity, and patience, they will get close enough for their purposes.
© Greg Smith, 2013
Greg is the founder and chief creative officer of Black Lake Studio (www.blacklakestudio.com). He is also a writer and speaker, working in a variety of non-fiction and fiction genres, and frequently collaborates with other authors. You can read and learn more at his site, SmithGreg.com. (www.smithgreg.com).