WE CAN”T GET THERE
Type A personality, the medical establishment determined forty years ago, contributes to invisible diseases like Crohns, colitis, multiple sclerosis etc. I certainly know believing I must excel at everything factored heavily into my struggle with Crohns for many years. The harm doesn’t come with the desire for perfection, but in judging I had fallen short of perfect. I spent as much time mentally impaling myself on pointed hooks and beating my spirit raw with acid tipped whips for not reaching the standard I expected, as I did in attempting a textbook result.
Like the carrot swaying in front of the donkey, perfection appears reachable, yet remains just short of our bite. We may visualize what a perfect result would be, but like an artist, fall short of the picture in our mind when we execute. We may have witnessed or experienced timing, ability, situation, and conditions all coming together in a perfect storm. The moment lives on in our memory as a consummate achievement. The ace fired across the net at Wimbledon that wins the game, an extreme kayaker maneuvering through a set of class five rapids, a baker creating an impeccable cake, each live a moment of near perfection. The emphasis is on near.
At age fifty – yes fifty! I am one slow learner – I sat on the edge of my bed crying about a goal I’d fallen short in reaching. “If I’d only done this or said that … it would have been perfect.” “Madelon, there is no such thing as perfection.” My mother’s no-nonsense voice coming through the phone stopped the tears. My head tilted sideways as I thought her words through. No perfect state meant I constantly reached for the impossible, then castigated myself for failing. This revelation turned my life in a new, far healthier direction.
Enacting a flawless moment, will always leave us coming up short. Yet, eschewing perfection doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying. Instead, we work toward our absolute best, and that is achievable. A violinist born with a special gift performs at a higher level than a hard-working amateur, but the amateur improves as he practices. A surgeon who puts in hundreds of ours of practice might perform a near flawless operation but still searches for better techniques. Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule asserts achieving true expertise in any skill is simply a matter of practicing, albeit in the correct way, for at least 10,000 hours. This thinking put in play raises a person through the ranks from beginner to adequate, good, better, best. I am certainly a better writer after thousands of hours of wordsmithing.
Accepting perfection as unreachable minimizes the mental lash of the whip. We’ve done well. We deserve the pat on the back for success, not the flagellation of failure. Perfection is an ideal hard-wired into our psyche. Bottom-line, its purpose is to motivate, challenge, inspire and keep humankind striving for better. We have a perception the world is getting worse, our choices poorer. Yet, Hans Rosling spent years showing the world, through data, that in fact we have made huge inroads in decreasing poverty, raising living conditions in third-world countries, furthering women’s rights, eliminating diseases and many other areas. His book Factfulness, coauthored by his children after his death is an international bestseller. I highly recommend this positive take on our progress.
Possibly, you’ve never strived for perfection (do you know how smart you are), or maybe, you don’t accept my belief that perfection is unattainable, and will continue chasing it while developing an ulcer. I know my experience of letting go of the ideal of perfection bettered my life. Knowing the carrot isn’t half as tasty as it looks, I find joy in the process, and the end result is what it is —usually pretty darn good.