The tyranny of perfection



The idea of perfection can get a tyrannical grip on your imagination and stop you from making progress. Have you ever sat in front of a blank piece of paper and been too intimidated to write anything? Afraid of how other people will react and judge what you have written. Will they like it or not, what will they think of you? When people are asked what they fear most, public speaking is usually at the top of the list. There you are in front of an audience, and you want them to listen and appreciate what you are saying. It is very easy to say something wrong and embarrassing. There is a lot of pressure to get it right and to give the perfect speech.

The fear of embarrassment and rejection is deep in our psychology, and we will do a lot to avoid it. This fear makes us susceptible to the idea of perfect and it gives the concept of perfection power over our behavior. The way to avoid embarrassment and rejection is to write the perfect letter, book or article. The blank piece of paper challenges you: what are the perfect words to start your book with? This challenge is often enough to give people writer’s block.

Quite a few years ago now my wife and I were browsing an antique shop, and we both liked a chess set that was on display. It was beautiful, had an unusual design and would have fitted well into our house. We asked the shopkeeper about it, and he gave described its history, the craftmanship and the design. All was well; we were preparing to buy it, but then he said he had to point something out. There was a slight flaw. By then we had been looking at the chess set for some time and had not noticed it. In fact, you had to have the flaw pointed out to you before you would notice it but once you knew it was there your eye was drawn to it. Instantly the chess set went from a great buy to no thank you, we would not buy it at any price.  Our behavior changed completely because of knowing about the flaw. I am sure that if the shopkeeper had not pointed it out to us, we would have bought the chess set and been happy with it. Never knowing there was a small flaw.

Knowing that something is not perfect can be liberating. When I bought my first Amazon Kindle and kept it in a case to protect it. The unit was perfect. As good as the day I bought it, but I did not use it very much. After a year or so I noticed a small blemish had appeared on the screen. Not enough to stop me from using the Kindle but I was annoyed that it was not perfect anymore and of course it was just out of warranty by then. The strange thing was that once I got over my annoyance, I changed how I used the Kindle. It wasn’t perfect, so it didn’t matter if it got scratched and so I took it out of the case. Now the Kindle was slim enough to fit comfortably into a jacket pocket. I started to carry it to work and read it during my commute. This change made a huge difference and made my daily commute much better. After years of excellent service, another spot appeared on the screen, and I decided it was time to replace my old Kindle. This time, I knew what to do. I deliberately bought a reconditioned Kindle from Amazon so that I would not worry about it. I wanted to think of it as already flawed it some way so that I would not worry about keeping it in a case or dropping it. I had discovered that - for me - it was much more important to take pleasure in using the Kindle rather than keeping it pristine and as good as the day I bought it.

The idea of perfect is man made. It is an abstract concept. The problem is that it has no meaning in the physical world, and nothing in the physical world is “perfect.” We live in the physical world; all our actions apply to the physical world and therefore everything we do is imperfect. If you focus on perfection, it becomes a tyrant and crushes creativity and inhibits action. The aphorism “perfect is the enemy of good” sums it up nicely. To make progress, you just have to be better, not perfect.