At some point in my life, I got tired of being recognized as a loser, so instead of sabotaging situations that intimidated me (like getting thrown off the track team for smoking), I began to hide behind perfection.
Here’s how you do it:
State a goal. Let’s use starting this blog as an example.
Next, you do a whole, whole bunch of work on that goal. So, I wrote a bunch of blog posts, edited them, and polished them up,
Lastly, you scrap all your work because “it just isn’t good enough.”
You’re done! Super easy.
And here’s the magic: you get to create things and feel accomplished and look like you have these high standards, all while never subjecting yourself to any sort of potential criticism!
Unless you actually want to accomplish all those goals and achieve those stupid dreams you have floating around inside your head (my first podcast was all about this). If you actually want to make something of your life and do the things you feel called to do, then you have to address the lies and illusions that come with perfectionism.
Perfection Isn’t Real
This is the primary problem with perfection: it doesn’t exist. We touched on this in the last blog, but we’ll dig into it a little deeper here.
Let’s stick with the example of the blog.
What would a perfect blog post look like?
Would it draw in a bunch of readers?
Inspire people to change their lives?
Tell people how to do something with complete accuracy?
Catapult me to a book deal?
Now, let’s say these aren’t outlandish hopes. What would happen when I accomplished them?
What good is drawing in a bunch of readers if they will be looking for another perfect blog post next week?
In what way would I want to inspire people to change their lives?
Is there a one-size-fits-all life change that will help everyone?
What would I want to tell people how to do with perfect accuracy?
What good is a book deal if I cannot escape the need for a simple blog post to be perfect?
What does a perfect book look like?
This is where the idea of perfect falls apart –it leads to an endless chain of new things that need answering, and those lead to more things that need answering. It’s an infinite regress that prevents us from doing anything.
This matters because we can use it to avoid ever doing anything. I wrote dozens and dozens of blogs posts before publishing them. The fear of criticism, masked by an aspiration for perfection, could have kept me writing letters to myself for years and years. It can do that with anything we hope to do if we don’t address it.
Perfection isn’t Universal
If we ask 10 people what a perfect blog post for them would be, we’ll get 10 different answers.
Oh, I would love a post about how to make lasagna in my Instant Pot.
Please write about how to meditate when you have roommates.
Could you do a post that breaks down how to change a tire? I got stranded on the loop for two hours the other day.
How do I budget for groceries as a waiter? My income varies from day to day.
Please write something that really explains mindfulness! I am interested but can’t quite understand the concept.
And we’re already back in the weeds – there are hundreds of potential answers to these questions, and we are still only addressing my stupid little blog. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if we expand this into all the things that concern real life.
There are so many topics and interests to explore, the idea of a perfect post is idiotic. And, this doesn’t even address the fact that no post on any of these particular topics would satisfy most people, much less everybody, thus achieving perfection.
Oh, I don’t like fennel, I wish you hadn’t put that in the recipe, and I have a 6oz Instant Pot, not 8.
But my roommate watches the news in the morning – you didn’t address how to not get caught up in the things I hear on there.
My jack isn’t in my trunk. Where is it?
Ummmmm, you didn’t write this post for vegans. I’m a vegan. How do I shop?
I still don’t understand what mindfulness is.
This goes on and on.
Perfection is not a real thing, so it cannot be universal. None of us will ever do anything that makes everyone happy.
Perfection isn’t Interesting
We don’t like perfect people. There’s no place for connection or understanding or resonance with them. This is why we have flawed characters in everything we read and watch, and we tend to shy away from the people who pretend to be perfect. Superman needs his kryptonite to remain exciting, and Dumbledore made a bunch mistakes – we wouldn’t have much interest in them without this.
Our imperfections are where other people can see themselves in us, and this drives connection. I cannot think of any character, real or invented, who embodied perfection. The moments where people connect with Jesus are the ones where he is most human – defending a woman accused of adultery, crying and mourning over Lazarus, experiencing crippling doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is true of all the significant figures in history and literature and film.
Perfection indicates the lack of need for growth and evolution, and this is really, really boring. When striving for perfection, we are striving to be above it all, to hover like a faceless god, observing life with a detached equanimity.
There is nothing interesting about that, but it sure is safe.
Perfection is Stagnation
And that sums up why we seek perfection: to be free of all the sad little things that could bring criticism or blame into our lives – to be safe. I wanted perfection in my blog posts so that no one would have anything mean to say.
Think about it: perfection would mean no criticism because there was no room for improvement. By refusing to publish anything that wasn’t perfect, I was shielding myself from criticism, and therefore never improving at all. I could sit there, happy and stupid, never growing, never changing, never doing anything.
Perfection is an old, boring idea, that doesn’t exist and shields us from all the best (but messy) things in life like growth and connection. It strangles new ideas in their crib and prevents real relationship with other people. It’s a perfectly bad idea.
So perfection isn’t helpful.
What do we do about it? How do we get away from it?
It’s actually easy to escape the trap of perfection, and it’s also hard and scary, but it’s also not scary at all, and we can start right now.
The key is doing things we are not perfect at, risking failure, failing, being criticized, learning that none of that is so bad, evolving, and then taking on the next challenge that scares us.
It’s the only way to grow, so the choice is between risking and growing or being safe and staying where we are. This is fine if we are perfectly happy with our life and cannot envision anything we might want to create or achieve. I assume that if you are reading a blog like this in the first place, you aren’t content to stay where you are.
So start today. Pick something that you’ve wanted to do that entails moderate risk, and do it.
Fail to achieve perfection. Fail to do things exactly right, and keep doing that. Eventually, you’ll be doing all those things you want to do, and you’ll be surprised when you look back and realize how many successes have emerged from the failures.
Do this well, don’t seek failure, it will show up all on its own. Diligence is the key: doing our best, learning at every step, failing and getting right back up, always taking steps forward.
Diligence, not perfection.
Who do I most admire in the world?
Have they been perfect in their lives?
Where would they be if they only did things that were guaranteed to be perfect?
Do I use perfection to mask a fear of failure?
Do I believe perfection exists?
What am I not doing that I want to be doing?
How can I start today?
We’ll look at training in concentration in the next post. See you then.
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I write, podcast and make videos about living in freedom through mindfulness, intentionality, compassion, and equanimity.
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