The Myth of Perfection
‘Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.’
— Salvador Dalí
The desire for perfection seems to be built into humans by default. Whenever we begin a new project — be it a new piece of art, an essay or a startup — it magically appears in consciousness and colors every action we take.
Some people call it ‘attention to detail’ or ‘doing the best you can’. For others, it’s a synonym for originality. Whatever it is, the shadow of perfection looms large over any creative endeavour.
The dictionary definition of perfection is a state that cannot be improved upon. What this definition does not mention is that perfection is a damaging myth that keeps us from fully immersing ourselves in the process of creation, or worse, paralyzes us into inaction.
Perfection is a dark force that lures you into believing that you are making progress, while pushing your goal further away from you. When we fall under its spell we sacrifice momentum and waste effort on things that matter little in the long run. Rather than focus on building the car engine, we keep fussing about the upholstery.
The pull of perfection is also why we weigh inspiration more than the simple act of just showing up to work everyday. Since the notion of perfection in our heads is so vague, we start to believe that nothing less than a flash of insight from our subconscious can kick start us into action. So instead of creating, testing and refining our creations, we keep waiting for the right ideas which may or may not to come.
When we do get started, we find it difficult to give ourselves fully to the activity of creating. This is because a part of us always stands apart from the action and keeps asking:
‘How am I doing?’
‘Is this good enough?’
‘How does it compare to what already exists?’
As a result, we can never truly get into flow: a state where we are fully absorbed in the task at hand. Being in flow, or in the zone as some people call it, is one of the most profound experiences humans are capable of. It has been proven scientifically that your ability to achieve flow states consistently is one of the best ways to engineer happiness into your life. Chasing perfection short circuits your ability to receive this gratification.
The hold of perfection on our psyche needs to be broken if we are to achieve what we’re fully capable of. To do that, we first need to deconstruct perfection.
Why perfection is meaningless
By definition, what is perfect is unknown because it simply doesn’t exist yet. The obvious question then is how can we know we’ve attained perfection if we don’t know what it looks like? If we knew what perfection looked like, then we would just be making something similar to what already exists. If that is the case, how can our creation be then labelled ‘perfect’?
Now you might argue that we can imagine perfection. Fair enough. But again, how can you determine that what you imagined is the best that can be? That there’s no further improvement possible? Unless you are a God-like entity, you have no way of knowing what all is possible.
If this slight philosophical detour doesn’t convince you of the absurdity of perfection, consider how Nature — the mother of all creators — goes about its business. So awesome are nature’s creations that till Darwin came along, most people believed that only a supreme Being could have created them all.
To be fair, you can’t really fault the old timers. Whatever notions of perfection you might have, can they can ever come close to the complexity and mystery that is, say, the human brain?
However, as we now know Nature doesn’t waste its time with nonsense like ‘perfection’. Working through the blind process of evolution, its only goal is to create an organism that is fit for survival. It doesn’t do this by following a blueprint of what the ideal organism should look like, but by stumbling along, creating one version after another, and testing to check which one works.
Remember that evolution is an extremely slow and incremental process. But as the improvements add up over millions of years, you eventually get the ape who can build a rocket to the moon.
Why does the myth of perfection persist?
So why does the allure of perfection persist despite the futility of chasing it? The answer lies at the intersection of how we view success stories and the peculiar nature of success itself.
Firstly, there is a huge survivorship bias inherent in the stories of accomplishment we are exposed to. We only hear about the author who was on the best seller list or the startup founder who sold her company for a billion dollars. Equally talented and hardworking people, who failed — or were only moderately successful — are simply forgotten.
Secondly, success follows a power law: the person at the number one position in any field reaps most of the benefits and rewards. Be it sports, the arts, or entrepreneurship, the number two is usually far behind in terms of earnings and fame. This difference is not so much due to a difference in talent or performance, as it is due to the snowball effect of success. Whether we like it or not, to the victor go most of the spoils.
These two reasons are probably why we equate success with beating everyone to get to the top. It’s also why we emulate people like Elon Musk and JK Rowling, rather than look for role models closer to home, who in fact, might be more relatable.
In sum, the desire for perfection kicks in when inspiration disconnects itself from reality. By defining success only in terms of stupendous outcomes, we prevent ourselves from enjoying our work for its own sake. If the real reason to chase perfection is to feel good about yourself, an easier alternative is to structure your life around what you actually enjoy doing. This way, even if you don’t end up on the cover of Forbes magazine, you get to live each day exactly as you want to.
And that is as good a definition of success as any.
How to give up on perfection
Seeking perfection is like being pulled forward by an illusory goal. Even if you experience forward movement, you will always be conscious of how far away you still are. The alternative is to place the source of momentum within you. How can you do this? By committing to become better with each successive attempt. Even though incremental improvement is seen as too slow or not bold enough, its benefits add up pretty fast. As Bill Gates says:
‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.’
Furthermore, you achieve refinement and beauty in your work not by adding more to it, but by cutting out the excess bits. In other words, you have to first create something ugly and awkward before you can get to the result you actually want. That is how Michelangelo created his sculptures, and Steve Jobs created the iPhone.
In conclusion, forget about perfection and get on with it. Have high standards, but do not hang on to them at the cost of moving forward. Follow the process and see where it leads you. Perfection is a fool’s errand; the only thing that matters is to do the work and become better every single day.