Perfectionists can be dangerous folk.
We are the ones that spend hours finding an order for our belongings, ensuring that the lines in a drawing are as straight as possible, and determining the ideal position for the punctuation marks in a sentence. The ones which seek mirrors in our actions, and the ones to which mirrors speak words. The highest-achieving students. The most reliable colleagues. The fastest runners. The most artful performers. The best friends.
It’s strange that there seems to be such a wide variety of things that we can be good at, but only one haunting voice which whispers:
“You can do better.”
This post is about that voice.
The phrase “to be perfect” resonates differently with all of us, and likely, it hits a positive tone. It is almost always awesome to see someone setting a standard of excellence, and then reaching out towards it. Persistence, determination, conscientiousness, ambitiousness— these are all traits which we generally value as being necessary to achieve an ultimate level of performance. Some — academics, athletes , etc.— not only respect perfectionist attitudes but also foster them in order to break the boundaries of human ability.
Turn the coin around. These overly controlling, obsessive behaviours also break the boundaries of human sanity. Want to jump higher or play a tune more melodically? First, you need to imagine something better than what currently exists. You need a vision of that atomic, incremental improvement, and then convince yourself that attaining this improvement is absolutely necessary at all possible costs. No matter how long it takes, no matter how much effort it takes, and no matter who gets neglected in the process. It is your purpose and it must be done. It is no wonder that these roads often dead-end with deadly prisons such as severe anxiety, mental disorders, and social withdrawal.
Where is the balance? Is there one?
The world is cruel.
We are modern society that prides itself in its self-awareness. We surround ourselves with discussions, apps, and articles (hi, Medium!) with titles such as: “21 Tips to Become the Most Productive Person You Know”, “13 Ways to Improve Your Life”, “9 Things Every Person Should do Each Morning”, “Improve Your CV Right Now”. We paint a picture of a balanced life with different colours of health conscientiousness. Really, though, it’s remarkable how unhealthily black-and-white we can be. We are binary in that we base lives around ticking “achievement boxes”, in that we only focus on measuring effort, rather than considering how it is invested, and in that we usually show two outcomes only : failure or success. We impose immediate expectations on ourselves, yet enjoy feeling like all the alternatives are on the horizon. Indeed, we are like a gardener that destroys the leaves of weeds by day while watering them at their roots by night. So many plants end up poisoned.
With such an ambient, it’s incredibly easy to fall into an “all-or-nothing” loop of obsessive self-improvement, where perfection is aimed for, but never achieved. This is the voice of pressure you hear. To some, it is a whisper. To others, it is a scream.
Whilst I believe that thirsting for improvement is natural and admirable, I also think that improvement without context is not. Like the path of human evolution, our paths are not linear; they twist, curve, disconnect, and intermingle. What meaning does perfection take here? There are so many places to discover, that living on one purpose or formula just makes no sense. Your journey is yours — make the destination be as well.
Perfectionists are idolised because we all know that determination is not free. It takes personality and courage. In the process, though, we sometimes forget that determination is also a currency, which is owned and budgeted. Your determination is your own, and only your invested determination is worth gold.