Perfect! It’s the exclamation we all want to hear, or say. Did I do a good job, find just the right dress, paint that picture exactly right?
As we all scramble to be true to all those resolutions we made last week, I’m wondering about why we made them. Is it perfection we’re after? And who gets to decide? At this stage of the game, I know that my body is far from perfect—ah, but I’m pretty thrilled that I still have a waist and am under the ideal BMI for my age. And still, I want to be better, more flexible, healthier. That flat stomach may still evade me, but maybe I can touch my toes. My new yoga class mantra for today was “I accept.” Ah, but with caveats.
I am an editor by trade, so I accept that nothing is perfect. If a piece of writing comes along from a Pulitzer prize winner or a college neophyte, it is bound to need a bit of a polish. My magazine colleagues and I found that most superb writers realized that, and appreciated a good back-and-forth about a comma or the choice of an adjective. (Even Hemingway needed his Maxwell Perkins.) I was dismayed to discover so many professional colleagues who take affront at anyone questioning their work, not quite accepting that a kick of the tires is good for any piece of writing or a new idea. Constructive criticism it should be, but criticism nonetheless, and it should start at home.
Those who berate those of us with a penchant for punctuation may have a remarkably similar obsession with a perfect dinner plate, or the position of a book on a coffee table. Those who live for political justice simply cannot understand why anyone goes to bed without reading the latest manifesto; animal rights activists can’t sleep at all knowing that torture goes on in many a ratty backyard. Valid passions all…where does the reasonable line lie? Can the world be perfect, or must we die trying to make it so? I'm just glad people care.
Research increasingly shows us that we must take risks, and that failing takes us to new and better results. And yet, we too often run away from putting ourselves out there, with our ideas or our creative attempts. I think it’s all about perfection. If I can’t do it well, then perhaps I shouldn’t do it at all. Someone might not like it, or me. We inevitably fall into the traps of either complete avoidance or total paralysis (or a heart attack along the way). I wish I were better at following Voltaire’s wise adage, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
So go ahead, be fearless: Start eating well, declutter, save a bit more, exercise daily, be a better person. But think about this quote about the late artist Ellsworth Kelly: “He was a perfectionist,” said Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong, “but I would also say he was a flexible perfectionist.”
Hey, I can do that!