Isn’t it ironic that the idea of “perfection” is so flawed? The concept is obvious, and the idea is certainly enticing, but the standard is oh-so-high, seemingly unattainable – but does that mean we throw our hands up without trying?
I was perhaps five years old when I learned one of my first lessons about imperfection. My parents were arguing about toothpaste and I – as any sensitive young child – thought the world was coming to an end. My head started spinning, and I felt utterly betrayed. Was Colgate to blame?
Of course time changes your sense of the world and so I came to understand that it’s just a matter of time before each of us arrives at the truth about perfection, the realization that this magical state is essentially unreachable.
Some of us learn the hard way. Our parents divorce, friendships fail, dreams stumble under the pressure of daily truths. Our quests for beauty, our hopes for financial success, our desire to enjoy what we think is best about life, they all seem to stop somewhere short of where we want them to.
Since we have to accept the idea that life will eventually show us that perfection is not the hallmark of existence, we need to recognize the value of what it means to try our best and accept what we can’t control. And that’s the good news. Perfection may be a cold judge of our fallibility, but the standard gives us lots of wiggle room to be our very best.
We can’t lose sight of the real lessons we learn about perfection every day, and their value is in their promise, the possibility that we can always be better. One clear example of this is that the ideal of perfection illuminates the importance and positive value of practice.
For example, I’m a strong advocate of using flash cards in order to memorize French vocabulary in hopes of achieving fluency—whatever that means. Fluency isn’t perfection, but it sounds good to me. And I will always get better. Practicing any skill, instrument, or sport will help us to excel, an axiom that sometimes makes us want to find something else to do, ironically.
In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000 Hour Rule,” an articulation of this old adage that “practice makes perfect.” Whoops, there we go again, craving perfection. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t doubt that the more we write and the more we read, the better we will become at both of them; nor should we doubt that these skills will manifest themselves positively in many other areas of our lives.
However, with this standard on the table, if we do all of these things with perfection in mind, we will feel as though we are never quite good enough. This of course shouldn’t dismiss the notion that having high expectations of oneself is a good thing. To try and meet these expectations with a degree of love, passion, and drive is an even better thing.
The key then, perhaps, is to embrace, to learn, to grow, and to reflect on everything in between. Enjoy the ride. As long as we’re aware that the real goal is improvement, we’re probably doing the right thing.
Who needs perfection, anyhow? Thank God for the goofy in all of us. Perhaps my choppy French is endearing to native speakers, much as we love a Parisian’s delightful twist on the English language.
Flaws and shortcomings make us human, and my favorite people are quirky. They provide the platform upon which our greatest successes and accomplishments are made, and those achievements are often far short of perfection. Sometimes it’s not a question of where you are, it’s a question of how far you’ve come.
Life is about growing, changing, identifying the things we need to fix and then getting somewhere. There might be no such thing as the perfect relationship or the perfect job, but if we’ve done what we can to make it so, we’ve done the right thing.
I am happy to report that my parents’ dispute was easily resolved after some compromise was made or after time blurred the conflict too inconsequential. And that’s been my experience with most of the conflicts or failings I’ve witnessed or suffered firsthand. This simple resolution to such shortcomings is that we need to keep moving forward, pushing above and beyond the imperfections in our lives.
This idea of moving on illuminates a truth much bigger than the inevitability of occasional failings and the dissatisfaction that punctuate our lives. Perfection is most often an illusion of sorts, as it is essentially unattainable, beyond our grasps and our inherent talent for being less than we want to be. We need to let it go, but never forget to be our best. And being our best takes some work.
At the end of the day, even toothpaste can teach us something about ourselves.