Why Perfect Is The Enemy Of Good

Photo: stevendepolo

As long as I can remember, I’ve been burdened with a desire for perfection in all my creative endeavors.  No new sentence can be written until the previous one is just right.  No garment painted can be abandoned until its texture seems utterly real, as if touching it wouldn’t yield the sensation of oil paint but of velvet, silk, or cotton.  But my dogged pursuit of this verisimilitude has often proven itself to be the greatest obstacle to my achieving it.

We lose perspective on the quality of our creations the moment we create them.  And the more we pore back over them in pursuit of a fresh perspective, the farther it moves away from us.  Combine this with the need for perfection and the result is often paralysis.

The irony, of course, is that while “perfect” may exist as a concept that impels us to keep trying to better our work, any judgment that we’ve achieved it in any particular instance remains entirely subjective and therefore by definition imperfect.  This almost certainly explains why we can judge something perfect one minute and then hopelessly flawed the next without making a single change.

The quest for perfection also leads to dithering:  the endless reworking of a sentence or a melody or a sculpture from its original form until it comes full circle back to the form in which we originally laid it down.  Though trying out other possible forms may be the only way we become convinced that the original was, in fact, best, it wastes time and feels more like an itch we need to scratch than an effective creative process.  And this, of course, presumes we’re able to make it back around to a form we even consider good, so confused is our judgment often made by this ruminative process.  More commonly, we don’t so much finish a project as abandon it, not knowing what else to do to salvage it from the wreckage our own obsessive tinkering has produced.

And when we finally return to it later, we often find time away from it was the only thing that actually had the power to grant us what we most need:  an improved ability to judge its quality objectively.  And if we’re lucky we see, sometimes in a flash that lasts only a split second, not how to make it perfect but how to make it work.

Our development as creators of good works must at some point involve our learning how to leverage our desire for perfection to impel us toward quality without becoming trapped in a miasma of permanent dissatisfaction with everything we create.  At some point, we must remind ourselves, any changes we make to a creation no longer make it better but just different (and sometimes worse).

Recognizing that inflection point—the point at which continuing to rework our work reaches a law of diminishing returns—is one of the hardest skills to learn, but also one of the most necessary.  Sometimes our first attempt truly is best; sometimes it takes seventeen attempts to really nail it.  But overworking something is just as bad as failing to polish it.

What helps to release me from the compulsion to create perfection, I’ve found, is striving to put into proper perspective the importance of the act of creation itself.  When I’m immersed in the creative process, nothing feels more important to me at that moment than the thing which I’m creating.  And though that sense of importance is what drives my passion and discipline (which in turn is what makes creating it possible at all), it also represents the source of the painful sense of urgency for the final result to be perfect.  Forcing myself, then, to recognize that in the grand scheme of life no one thing is so important to me or anyone else that failing to make it perfect will permanently impair my ability to be happy is what frees me from the need for it to be perfect.  Freed then from the need to attain the unattainable, I can instead focus on enjoying the challenge of simply doing my best.  Because if we allow ourselves to remain at the mercy of our desire for perfection, not only will the perfect elude us, so will the good.

Next Week: Keeping Romance Alive

16 comments to Why Perfect Is The Enemy Of Good

  • This is an excellent post, and will be useful to many people, I have no doubt.

    I know for myself, though, that here is the operative phrase for me:

    “if we’re lucky we see, sometimes in a flash that lasts only a split second, not how to make it perfect but how to make it work.”

    You’ve captured the essence here. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to work.

    Said it all! So useful! Many thanks.

  • “No new sentence can be written until the previous one is just right.” Interesting! Though I can’t help wondering how you get everything done, if that’s how you work!

    I love the observation that time away from something is the only thing that gives us what we most need, the ability to judge it objectively.

    And I take comfort in what one of my first editors told me: “Snowflakes aren’t perfect, but they’re still pretty cool.”

    Maureen: Deadlines help. Make me focus more on getting things done than getting them perfect. Stops me from over-editing my sentences.

    Alex

  • Beautiful post. I’ve been in the situation myself, banging my head against the wall trying to get the colours just right on a photo when they were fine already but managing to convince myself that the current state is somehow unworthy. It’s truly difficult to step back from that and just accept when something is right.

  • Mike

    Just out of curiosity, is the title based on a quote of Voltaire?

    Mike: Yes.

    Alex

  • For much of my life I remember feeling that drive for perfection, reasoning that anything worth doing is worth doing right! It became a source of tension and pride until one day I heard the sentence uttered, “The pursuit of perfection is the biggest waste of time!” I felt the words strike me like a sudden punch in the abdomen. What could be further from the truth? However, after pondering and struggling with this idea at length, which is what “we” self-proclaimed perfectionists do in an attempt to find its perfect place in our world, I finally realized then what you are saying in this article now, that indeed perfection is the enemy of good. I now regard myself as a recovering perfectionist and the phrase, “paralysis by analysis” helps me to keep moving forward. I still strive for excellence but keep guarded against the illusion of perfection.

  • Makani

    Thank you for a great post. I have to write policies and regulations in my position and I am constantly rewriting every policy because I am never satisfied with my first attempts. And even after a policy or regulation has the final approval by senior management, I will look at the published version and itch to change a few sentences, irritated that I cannot. I especially like what you said, (paraphrasing), by trying to achieve perfection, we end up with imperfection.

    I think I will keep this post close by my computer, so that when I am attempting to rewrite a policy for the 20th time, I will stop and say, “Enough is enough” and mean it.

  • Jean

    What is perfection but a made up concept like objectivity? Without imperfections in nature, nothing would evolve, nothing new would appear to fit into a niche not yet filled.

    One of the spiritual books I read regularly states: “…We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines…We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” When I can remember this point, my life is far more enjoyable than when I don’t.

    I am told that some artists begin a new work by marring it in some way, thereby releasing themselves from the pressure of the illusion of the possibility of perfection. This practice also appeases the gods who would be offended by our reaching perfection, and who may take revenge!

    Thank you for this post and all of your posts; your thoughtfulness helps me to live more mindfully.

  • Steven P

    This is a wonderful post not so much because it breaks new ground for me but because it validates my decision about 15 years ago that “the pursuit of perfection, more often then not, is an undesirable goal most likely to block completion.”

    In order not to fall into the trap of pursuing it, having from time to time been called a perfectionist, I adopted the “Rule of 98.” The Rule of 98 simply states that when something is 98% complete, it is in reality complete. Scoring a 98 on an exam in school still brought you a grade of A+. Who could want more than that? Seeking out that last 2% does not really get you a better grade. And pursuing that last 2% wastes a lot of time, is very subjective as many others looking at the project already think it is 100%, and can actually, as you noted so well, cause the project to be killed off completely and never finished.

    Thank you for sharing your insight on all this!

    Steven: I like it!

    Alex

  • Amy

    I’ve fought perfectionism for many years and my mantra now is that “life is a process” which has held me in good stead for a long time now. If you think about it, doing a bit here and there, building something up piece by piece over time … for me has become more satisfying. I can step back, think things over for a bit, and get back to the task at hand with better perspective of what my true goal really is. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Jim

    I traveled in Morocco many years ago and had the opportunity to visit a rug market filled with hundreds of beautiful hand woven rugs. One thing in particular that I remember is being told that the women deliberately weave an imperfection into the rug because “only God is perfect.” I’m not a religious person, but it helps me keep things in perspective.

  • Cathy

    I have always been, and am still, a perfectionist, and I have passed this “gene” along to my 9-year-old daughter. This article reminded me that perfection is the enemy of good, good enough is perfect. Is that Voltaire? I think a psychiatrist told me it. LOL. Anyways, with a gifted daughter that scored 140 points out of 100 on her year-long project ABSeas under the Sea (she hand drew 2 -3 sea creatures for each letter and researched and hand wrote 2-3 sentences telling about each one.) She has already been on Bay News 9 For her NTO Never Too Old service learning project and I save every project. The funny thing is the one that was “good enough,” got the same A+. Go figure.

    Cathy: It is Voltaire.

    Alex

  • It is good that you have found “perspective” as one remedy for your perfectionism poison. I regard myself as highly fortunate to not have an ounce of that genetic disease (and I do think it is largely genetic). But you perfectionists have lots of strengths linked with that trait—ones I am missing! Smile.

  • winterborn

    I think perfectionism is a complicated web for a lot of people. For me, a strict conservative religious upbringing reinforced a natural tendency to overanalyze everything to the point of paralysis, and though I have totally abandoned the religion I was raised with, many of its demands are still hauntingly present in my inability to accept good enough.

    A friend, raised in the same restrictive faith as I, recently posed a question in a discussion about perfectionism on her blog: “How do you forgive yourself for being human?” My immediate answer was that I don’t. But I’m working on it.

  • For years I have done the Muslim/Alla thing of God being the only perfectionist and worried that people would catch me at it. It sure saved a lot of wasted time except the worrying part of being caught.

    But of course even God didn’t manage to make a perfect world and I really doubt He is very worried about it.

  • CC

    Thank you for so clearly describing your own daily trials for us all to reflect. You and I mirror the same fears and personality attributes and reading your self analyses also helps me to better do the same. I have found that many persons that share our “heightened” concerns and behaviors, also have an obsessive compulsive personality (either diagnosed or not). It seems that working on my own OCD actions as they occur has helped GREATLY in keeping anxieties that I have no control over in a manageable perspective.

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