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To be or not to be…perfect

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

I had a friend once tell me, “Don’t try to be perfect, try to be better.” This was a game-changer for me and I’ve been thinking a lot about it following an episode I heard on TED Radio Hour.

The particular segment that struck me was about a guy who trains professional delivery drivers and had given a talk titled “We should aim for perfection - and stop fearing failure.” I’m not going to lie, I had a pretty strong reaction. I actually said, “No!” aloud to myself as I listened in my kitchen - more than once.

First, I’ve gotta say, that I give props to anyone willing to share their ideas in such a public way, as that can be pretty scary. But in this case, I’ve also gotta respectfully disagree with them.

His initial big point is that he accepts no less than perfection from his drivers because less than perfection means accidents. He teaches them that “perfectionism is an attitude developed in the small things and then applied to the larger job.” He uses healthcare as another example where striving for less than perfection can cost lives.

So. Many. Things.

For one, I take issue with his word choice here because I believe it matters. These drivers are not striving to be perfect: they are striving to be accident-free; doctors are not striving to be perfect: they are striving to be error-free.

Also, I think it's irresponsible not to assume that accident-free and error-free may not happen no matter how well-trained one is, as appropriate measures to deal with accidents and errors need to be in place.

When we strive for a goal, we need to be clear about what it is if we want to ensure the possibility of attaining it. Oh, and it should probably also be attainable; most of us at least logically know that perfection, even when clearly defined, is not. This is acknowledged in the talk: “Nothing and nobody is perfect.”

And what about the insinuation that the need for perfectionism applies as a general rule? What happens when we attach “perfect” to something much less black and white? What if it’s not being perfectly accident-free, but having the perfect weight, the perfect job, the perfect relationship, the perfect life, perfect happiness? How are these defined and who gets to decide?

These things are important because striving for an unattainable or seemingly arbitrary goal is at best demoralizing. At its worst, it can prevent us from striving at all.

And this relates to another big idea in the talk, which was that it is ultimately our fear of failure that has led us to be afraid to seek perfection. This is a problem because “failure is a natural stepping stone towards perfection” and also because “failure and loss are necessary for success.”

I agree that we are too afraid to fail. But man, I don’t agree with this characterization of our fear.

I think we are afraid to fail or even to make mistakes because we’ve been programmed to think of perfection as our ultimate goal. That while we logically know perfection is not achievable, there is a deep-down sense in our culture that it is and that we are defective if we can’t get there.

It’s right there when the speaker laments: “We still can’t convince ourselves to pay perfect attention behind the wheel.” As if achieving an unachievable goal is simply a matter of convincing ourselves. Or when he purports that a costly Amazon coding error and a deadly meningitis outbreak due to tainted compounded drugs, were because “of us no longer valuing perfection.” Did mistakes not occur at some point in human history because we did value perfection?

And what about slipping in the word success all of a sudden instead of perfection as if they are interchangeable? Another dangerous mixed message.

But perhaps the most distressing part of this talk for me, was the theme running through it that the opposite of perfectionism is a lazy, pathetic acceptance of mediocrity. It was the contempt for trying your best; that if you aren’t trying to be perfect, then you’re not really trying at all. “When did we come to live in a world where these types of typos, common errors, this do-your-best attitude or just good enough was acceptable?”

Which brings me back to my friend’s sage advice.

Letting go of trying to be “perfect” so you’re not beating yourself up when you inevitably don’t achieve it, does not stymie growth and improvement. On the contrary, it can open you up to taking risks that can directly lead to those things.

And “just” trying our best need not mean that we’ve settled for mediocrity or shunned striving. It simply means we’ve accepted reality. We can still focus and work and practice so that each day our best can be better than the day before.

Isn’t this what it’s all about anyway? It’s really in this effort that we as humans find meaning and purpose. I mean, there’s a reason people say life is about the journey, not the destination. It’s certainly not about someone else’s ill-defined and poorly applied idea of perfection.

I’d like to think that’s what this talk was really meant to say all along.

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