The Problem with Perfect

Of all the things you could have written, what percentage of things have you not written because perfectionism stopped you?

Rusty Bisele

Ah, perfectionism. The great delay-maker. Perfectionism can show up as procrastination (never getting started) or as infinite editing (never finishing). Either way, the underlying fear is that the work in question will not be perfect.

Sometimes, we delude ourselves into thinking we are not perfectionists by saying, “I don’t want to be perfect; I just want to be good enough,” while defining “good enough” by such high standards that we might as well be asking ourselves to be perfect.

And, the truth is that perfect does not exist. Even perfect numbers are arbitrarily called perfect. In life and art, quality is subjective. What is a perfect day, a perfect city, a perfect novel, a perfect child, or a perfect friend? I suggest that if you really ask those questions, you will find your definitions are not the same as your neighbors, and they are probably internally inconsistent as well.

Perfect is a myth.

The adage ‘practice makes perfect’ deludes us into thinking that there is some achievable status called perfection. Even Yogi Berra’s variation, “perfect practice makes perfect’ assumes that perfection is achievable. The right kind of practice yields improvement, but never gets to perfection.

If you seek perfection, you will never finish, because there is no such thing.

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

George S. Patton

If you want to do something, don’t let fear of getting it right stop you. Feel the fear and do it anyway is trite but applicable. Because the truth is, when you do something new, you will probably suck. But, if you don’t start, you will never get better. So, embrace the imperfection of your current work and dive in. See where it leads you.

Chances are you won’t get worse.

Though, I have to warn you that it might feel like you are getting worse. One of the things that often happens when you start to learn something is you learn that you are worse than you thought. It can be hard to believe, but the fact that you see your weaknesses is actually a sign that you are already better than you were. So, it is time to dive back in and improve some more. The more you know about a subject, the more you understand how much you don’t know.

Think of the amazingly awful singers who audition for American Idol who seem to genuinely believe that they are great. The only way they can believe that is to not understand music with any level of depth. And the humble singers with the beautiful voices and extreme control, they see how much they could still improve. They see the weaknesses at the edge of their range, the lack of control during certain transitions, the challenge of blending technique and emotional honesty, and other subtleties that most of the world can’t break down into their component parts.

As you learn how much you don’t know, you must not let perfectionism stop you. You must press on and send your work out into the world without achieving perfection. Otherwise, the good work you can do will never find an audience or make an impact.

The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.

George Eliot

You are not perfect. You never will be. But, what you are is good enough.

What are you going to do today to move the world forward?


About Kate Arms-Roberts

Posted on March 7, 2012, in Creativity, Daily Life, This Writing Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. You make a great point here, Kate. It’s so important to just give yourself permission to just GO.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I’m handing out permission today for anyone who has trouble giving to themselves. It isn’t always easy to let go.

  2. wonderful! Remember, Cynthia Winton-Henry (of InterPlay fame) says “its all practice.”

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      I always forget the Cynthia says that, but I love it every time I am reminded. I think I need it written somewhere obvious to remind me.

      Thanks for reminding me,

  3. You are correct that perfect is unattainable. Pursuing it can be paralyzing. But pretty good is pretty good.

    Speaking of more than pretty good, I cited your blog yesterday in a workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, when giving an example of a blog that weaves skillfully talk of writing and talk of oneself.

  4. Practice makes perfect only in the music practice room, simply because musicians are the only ones we expect to be 100% perfect 100% of the time. Imagine if you were at a concert where the musicians were only 90% perfect; it would be a disaster. So having studied with that level of perfection for years upon years, I’ve finally had to push it into a practice room to wait for me. I doubt I’ll ever return to the practice room for any length of time, so I think I’m safe. Now it’s Practice Makes Better, something I say to my boys at least once a week.
    And Stephen Hawking, in his series of documentaries about the universe, made a fantastic point about perfection. The universe was created simply because of imperfection. When A and I watched that together, it was an A-HA! moment for both of us. We’re here because nothing is perfect. Awesome.

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 03-08-2012 « The Author Chronicles

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