One of the reasons that we tend to be such harsh critics of ourselves is the belief that we can, and perhaps need to be, perfect. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Perfection, true objective perfection, is an absolute myth. In our entire universe, one of the very few constants is change, and the thought that something can be objectively perfect is utter horseshit.
Are you familiar with Einstein’s theory of special relativity? While the details are quite complex, the simple version is this: truth is relative, based on the observer’s point of view.
One of the best examples I’ve found comes from Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design. To summarize: If someone was on an airplane flying through the air, bouncing a ball in the cabin of the plane, to them it would seem as if the ball was always hitting the same spot, bouncing straight up and down. However, to an observer on the ground, each bounce of the ball would look more like a massive zigzag, because the plane is flying through the air at 500+ mph.
Both perspectives are true. The ball is bouncing in one place, and the ball is bouncing in different places, based on the location of the observer. It’s all relative.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Perfection is no different, simply because each and every one of us is different. We’ve had different life experiences, learned different lessons, and have different mixes of nature and nurture.
We tend to think less of ourselves because we never quite measure up to expectations, be they our own expectations or someone else’s.
But because none of us view things from exactly the same perspective, “perfection” is dependent entirely on the person observing or evaluating it. It’s not objective.
Beyond that, to say that something is perfect negates the constant of change, and precludes the possibility of future improvement.
Now, don’t get me wrong; there isn’t anything inherently wrong with seeking perfection. On the contrary, the very process of seeking perfection, of trying to become the very best we can be at something, is a great thing…so long as you can temper the pursuit for perfection with this simple truth:
It’s the journey that matters, not the destination.
There’s a fantastic movie, called Peaceful Warrior, that really drives this point home for me. It’s the dramatized story of an athlete who encounters massive adversity in his life, and learns how to overcome not just his own problems, but many of life’s problems, and it is one of my favorite movies.
So how, you might ask, do you go about overcoming the temptations of perfection and set out on said journey? The process, while somewhat time-consuming, can be broken down into six simple steps:
- Make a list of all the things that you feel imperfect at, or that make you feel imperfect (take your time, it might be a long list).
- If there’s anything on the list that you don’t truly want to be perfect at (perhaps someone else pushed you to pursue it), mark it off the list. If you have no real desire to be perfect at something, ignore it.
- Repeat after me, for each item left on the list: “I will never be perfect at X, and that’s fine…but I can and will get better at it.”
- For each item, make a separate list outlining what level of mastery you would be content with. For example, “If I can play through Beethoven’s Sonata Hammerklavier Opus 106, I will be content with my mastery of the piano.” Because perfection is subjective and thus impossible, you need goals to aim at in order to feel a sense of accomplishment and success.
- Work your way through your list. As you master one item, consider adding a next, more difficult step towards greater mastery. Or, if you’re content with where you are, remove that item from the list.
- When your list is empty, add more things to work on…or take a well-deserved break.
Life is about perfecting (the process), not about perfection (the destination). If you can remember that, and also remember that failure and imperfection are normal and acceptable parts of your journey, then everything changes.