Leandra Medine: I received a press release yesterday that said something to the effect of, “Get your perfect trench coat now.” It got me thinking about the concept of perfectionism, and why we’re always in pursuit of that perfect thing, and whether or not “perfect” is the right word to claim for these items, or states of mind, or theories that we try to achieve.
Furthermore, is the concept of being able to achieve perfect putting too much pressure on us? We’ve been taught that you can’t be perfect; nobody’s perfect. Is that why we’re in constant pursuit of the perfect things?
Charlotte Fassler: “Perfect” presupposes that something is as good as it can possibly be, so who sets the standard of perfect?
LM: Well, I guess it’s really subjective, right? All of our perceptions of perfect are going to be different. What’s perfect to me is not going to be perfect to you. Like, my theoretical future child, for example. Why would you care about some other kid whose nose is always running?
Amelia Diamond: We use the word perfect here. When you and I took sides on what’s harder to find — the Perfect Jeans or The Perfect Man — you argued that the perfect jeans are harder to find, right?
LM: But then I found the jeans.
Kate Barnett: What jeans would those be?
LM: Vintage Levi’s. But my idea of perfect is transient. Or rather, my idea of perfection in things is transient. Right now, the perfect jeans are high-waist, cropped and flared, but are those going to be the perfect jeans in a year from now? Probably not.
AD: So your idea of perfect came from trends and taste and your style at the time. Why do you think your idea of the perfect man won’t change?
LM: Well, I don’t think that my idea of the perfect man can change because I’ve invested so much emotional time in him, and we have become a single person in many ways. My constant evolving is tethered to his constant evolving. So, his becoming less than perfect is an indication that I’m not doing enough or working hard enough on our relationship.
AD: Interesting. So you put that back on you.
LM: Yeah. Well some of the things I’ve realized about Abie — or the things that I love about him — are the things that I don’t see in myself or that I’m not capable of executing, like consistent organization, or thorough thoughtfulness. These are all things that I want to be, but I’m not. So I find perfection in him.
Esther Levy: In order to have something that’s perfect, you need to be able to compare it to something that’s imperfect. Maybe that’s the question we should be asking — not what is perfect, but what’s imperfect. What is this standard against which we can measure perfection?
KB: The thing that’s interesting to me is the assumption that we want perfect, or that we want to be perfect. I don’t think that that’s a bad assumption, but why aren’t we comfortable with something that’s good? Or something that works? Why are we not comfortable with things being less than perfect? When I think about areas in my life that I want to scale back on, I get uncomfortable thinking about not doing the best job I could do in all areas. However, by definition, the best job I can do might not be realistic or accurate.
The best gardner I can be is a farmer. I’m not going to be a farmer, but why aren’t I comfortable growing a couple of herbs?
AD: I feel the same way. I always need to be extreme in everything I do. With riding, for example, I get frustrated if it’s not a perfect round. If it’s not a perfect drawing I throw it away. The thing is, there are textbook examples of perfection, but with something like art, who’s to say what is and isn’t perfect? I definitely know when I think my hair looks perfect. There are by-the-book standards that we’re hyper aware of, like In The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking says he is searching for the perfect equation.
LM: Right. The concept of perfection exists in math and science, where there are finite answers. But in the more creative world that we occupy — where we don’t necessarily live and die by the tenets of math and science — it’s up to us to define what perfect is, right?
AD: I don’t know that the idea of perfection is always a bad thing. Doesn’t it make us strive to be better? Having a goal of perfection is what drives a lot of us to be our best selves. Of course, we must have this understanding that this is not a perfect world, and that being human means we cant technically ever be perfect. But “perfection” gives us a reason to stay up late and write the best essay we can, or create the best painting. It’s what separates the lucky winners from the consistent winners.
But there are healthy and unhealthy extremes. That’s where we get into the problem of compulsion. But if you’re able to find some sort of grounded reality in perfection, it can propel you to achieve more than you might otherwise.
KB: Growing up, I was only ever told to do the best that I can. In that context, it’s a double edged sword because, what does it mean to try your hardest in comparison to doing the best that you can do? There are areas that I’m not particularly good in, that I won’t dabble in for fun. There are people who will pick up a hobby, or try and learn the banjo and be really terrible at it but find a lot of joy in it. I tend to enjoy doing things that I have a natural proclivity towards.
Within that, I’m driven to be the best that I can be, which ultimately leads to me measuring myself against myself, and that means that I can only ever do better or try more. I feel pride around the things that I do well, but there’s never a sense of, “I did perfect.” I always feel like I could do more.
LM: I think that if I had a clothing label, I’d call it Good Enough — in my own life, I have found the strive for perfection problematic. It assumes a lot of pressure. That’s okay to some degree, but it can also paralyze you.
CF: Perfectionism is something that I struggle. It sometimes can be a really healthy thing to step back and say, “good enough works right now,” because when you live your life striving for something that can be completely unattainable — which yes, can create good things and propel you to work harder — it can also be an incredibly paralyzing thing that leads you to beat down on yourself. You become hyper-aware of elements that you can’t control.
LM: If the supposition is that we experience two human emotions: love and fear and that every other emotion falls into those buckets, what motivates perfection? Is it love or is it fear? The problem with “good enough“ is that it could inhibit excellence, right? If you think that what you’re doing is good enough, chances are that you’re not going to test your limits because the limits are satisfying you.
I think of the movie Whiplash, when JK Simmons tells the story of Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head for making a mistake but that’s what made him Charlie Parker as opposed to just some dude with a bruised head and ego. So, what motivates perfection?
EL: Fear. Love indicates a level of comfort or ease with something; when you love something, you’re doing it for the sake of passion and self-fulfillment. When you’re constantly striving to be perfect, it seems like you’re afraid of disappointing someone, whether it’s your parents or yourself.
CF: Sometimes when you’re striving really hard to be perfect, even if it is something that you feel passionate about, it can strip the love and passion away if you’re too preoccupied with achieving this incredibly high standard.
AD: That’s true. But for me, part of the fun is getting better and having goals. I think that when it comes to riding horses, you can be someone who goes out and takes a lovely trail ride and that’s great. For me though, the fun of riding stems from the competitive nature: setting goals and reaching them, having those perfect rounds or the ideal distance to a jump. For me and my personality, that’s what makes it a very satisfying sport. Which probably sounds crazy. But then there are moments of, “wow that was a great round.” Not a perfect round. When you’re competing, sometimes you have to tell yourself, “You know what, I had fun out there.”
And for me, that’s definitely perfection driven by love. I wouldn’t pursue it if it weren’t for love. Fear-driven perfection for me was more about grades, or work.
LM: That’s a fear of failure. Which I guess presents the question, is failure the opposite of perfection? Is it possible that perfectionists are so wrapped up in doing things the best way because they can’t stomach the concept of failure?
AD: I think that’s when perfectionism becomes detrimental. A lot of perfectionists live by the idea that second place is first loser.
KB: I’m much more comfortable with failure than mediocrity.
LM: But see, that’s a form of perfectionism. You want to be the most at whatever you do.
AD: Is there ever an instance that you’re okay with mediocrity?
KB: I’m trying to get better about being okay with mediocrity. The other day, I was talking about giving advice to budding entrepreneurs, and I wanted to say, “If you could find a job and it makes you happy and you’re at the office for six hours, and you can go home after and have a life outside of that, do that and be happy.” Unless you are completely driven to dedicate your life to building something, be less ambitious. If you can, find comfort and happiness in structure — there’s nothing wrong with that. Mediocrity has a pejorative sound to it, but being average or decent doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of the world.
LM: Do you think we think it’s the end of the world because of the societal implications? It’s almost pushed on us — why are we constantly in pursuit of the perfect pants or perfect jacket. And Kate, you mentioned yesterday that these “Get the perfect___!” e-mails that flood our inboxes are based on data-driven fact. Perfect is a statistically-proven word that works. What are we pursuing?
Why don’t the emails say, “Buy an average trench coat”.
CF: I think that because the standards of perfection are something that seem to be personal and different, it’s almost a sigh of relief when someone tells you, “This is what’s perfect and you can obtain it!” It’s a really smart marketing tactic in that it eliminates these overwhelming choices we’d be faced with otherwise.
LM: But then what happens when it’s not perfect for you? What happens when you put it on and it’s incredibly flawed?
EL: I think this obsession with perfection — whether it’s getting an e-mail claiming to have found the perfect jeans or striving for perfection in the abstract sense — comes down to the age that we live in. We are all about the “I can do anything” mantra. We hear these success stories of people who wouldn’t have made it had the circumstances of the time period been different from what they are today. We’re fed this rampant individualism and we’re not satisfied with anything short of amazing or perfect because we’re constantly being told that we can do anything, and we will be exceptional at it.
AD: But if we’re not told that we’re special, or exceptional, it would take a very rare person to assume that they have a spark and they should just run with it.
CF: I wonder about that first exposure to the idea of perfectionism and upholding certain standards, whether or not it’s school that creates these finite rules about achieving a certain potential — the idea of grades. There is an actual numerical system that measures your performance. Then you’re thrown into the real world where grades no longer exist.
Some schools are eliminating grades now. They’re realizing that some kids are good at certain things and some are better at other things.
AD: It’s like that Einstein quote, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I think that’s sort of what you’re pointing out. I remember feeling how unfair it was that I was being judged based on the fact that I cannot do math. But I also don’t know how I would’ve functioned without that grade giving me something to strive for. What are you striving for? The competitive nature drives so many of us in such a positive way.
EL: Well there’s a difference between competing against other people and competing against yourself.
LM: Maybe what drives us is exactly what separates the perfectionists from the rest of the people. I’m not necessarily driven by competition. I’m driven by my wanting to provide for myself. Do you think perfect is even possible?
AD: I don’t, but I think that’s okay.
CF: I think that “perfect” may not be possible, but that there are a set of external factors that can work out perfectly. For example, there is definitely a perfect commute on my way to work. I can be walking into the train station and the train can arrive at that exact moment, I’ll get a seat, there will be no delays, I’ll get off, my transfer will arrive at that exact moment; that is a perfect commute. There’s nothing more I can ask for.
LM: Is there value in trying to redefine the concept of perfectionism — has the word been co-opted and therefore led to mean something it is not?
AD: Something to be more cognizant of is our kids — when we have them, what do we want to tell them and what will we expect of them? If we are not okay with the idea of perfectionism as we see it, we have to redefine it. Do you think that we would continue to say on MR, genuinely, “we found the perfect flats?” Or is perfect forever going to be in quotes?
LM: That’s a good question. I would like to start using “good” more. But I do wonder what it means for an impressionable young person when you’re consistently being told that X, Y and Z are perfect, and yet none of those things appeal to you. The only way I want to use perfect now is when I’m talking about being perfectly kind.
CF: Or the perfect weather.
LM: Which today, it is not.
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