Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.
– Harriet Braiker
I don’t think I’ve always realized that there’s a difference between these two things. Part of my brain still almost refuses to accept that there is a difference. Surely, brain says, surely the only real excellence is to be perfect?
Excellence, as in being exceptionally good at something, is worth working hard for, because it is attainable. Perfection, as in being without flaw, defect or blemish, is not.
Striving for perfection might seem like a great motivator, but it can be completely paralyzing. To quote John Henry Newman:
A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.
After all, if perfection is the only acceptable outcome, failure is going to be constant.
I can feel the paralysis of wanting perfection when I look in the mirror and see a sag, a wrinkle, an extra bit of weight; when I raise my kids (I’ve written about that before) and there’s a meltdown (me or them), or a bad day; and I can feel it when I write too.
When I’m writing, there’s sometimes a voice whispering in the background, wondering what the hell I even try for. I mean, seriously: why write if I can’t be as good as Hemingway and George Orwell, or sell as many books as Stephen King and JK Rowling? Why not just give up trying and just do the damn dishes instead?
(Answers the other part of my brain: because I want to and need to. Because I love to do it. Because I love working at it. Because I love trying to do it better.)
Once upon a time I thought (though I didn’t really think it out loud) that there was a way that I could achieve perfection: perfect scores on every test, perfect control of my life and what I did and even what happened to me. Not surprisingly I’ve realized that I actually can’t make or will everything to become perfect, no matter how I prepare and study and do everything I can to control everything within my grasp.
I think most people feel the deceptive tug of perfection. We use photoshop and auto-tune, credit cards, plastic surgery, diets, and spanx to achieve it, or rather to achieve the illusion of it. But life isn’t supposed to be perfect. Life is many things: amazing, happy, messy, depressing, frightening, chaotic, terrifying, painful, fun. But it is not perfect.
Can something be worthwhile, can it be valuable, if it was the best you could do, even if it wasn’t perfect?
Trying to achieve perfection is like trying to drink a picture of water: you can’t do it, and you’ll always be thirsty.
Striving for excellence leaves room to breathe, which means room for life. Room for a few extra pounds, a slip of the tongue, a bad day, a child who throws a tantrum, wrinkles, a skinned knee, a lost game, burned cookies, even an utter failure or two.
And then try, try again. Make it better. Work at it. Strive.
This post was originally published at my personal blog Kids. Food. Life.