If you are a perfectionist then you have probably experienced the procrastination, or paralysis, or anxiety, or depression that can flow from it. It can undermine your achievements, and even your entire life. We are advised therefore to give up perfectionism, and that is generally good advice. However, we need to be careful, as that is both good and bad advice. The good life is suspended by a thread of fine distinctions. There is a good perfectionism and a bad sort. Just as there is a good kind of mediocrity (humble, enjoying the good things of your life) and a bad type (giving up, giving in, going to seed). Yes perfectionism is dangerous, but many of the important things in life are. Like everything that matters in life, it is a double-edged sword. Rather than retreat from the challenge of living, we could instead become wise and skillful with these dangerous tools. Understood and used properly, perfectionism can propel you to heights you wouldn't have otherwise reached. Today I outline how to be perfectionist in a way that leads to achievement without neurosis. This is irrelevant to people who do not feel the pull, but for those of us who do, or who have, here is a sketch of the art of healthy perfectionism.
We live in the age of health and safety, of exhausted mediocrity, so I'm going to use classical philosophy as our guide to living big. Let’s go back two and a half thousand years and start our discussion with Plato’s image of the chariot, from his dialogue The Republic. The chariot is composed of three elements, the driver and two separate horses. The driver directs the horses, and without him they will crash. His name is Reason. But without the horses the driver can go nowhere. One horse is named Spiritedness. The other is Desire. Perfectionism enters into our lives at the level of the horses, spiritedness and desire. The spirit of excellence, to desire to do an excellent job. But this power in us can get out of control and cause us to crash, so it needs Reason to steer it. Today I am speaking to your Reason, so that you can use your spirit and desire for excellence in your craft to get somewhere with it, without crashing in the form of procrastination, anxiety, self-hate, and so on.
One of my images of excellence comes through music. As a teenager I was a passionate drummer. I grew up in a tiny rural town far from other musicians, and learned to play by recording music from the radio and practicing in a hot tin shed, there in the Mallee. I was inspired by the poor musicians I read about, and by their fanatical dedication to the music they loved so much, to becoming excellent in their craft so that nothing got between them and that music. I was also inspired by other artists. Michelangelo is an example. His life was far from perfect. His mother died when he was six. In matters of love he was unsuccessful at best - at worst he was used and abused. It is said that he lived in squalor. He was forced to leave Florence - the place where he had built his career - by religious zealots. He suffered depression throughout his life. And yet he achieved near-perfection in his best art. Here is my point: we seek perfection in the wrong place when we expect it of life itself. For life is very imperfect. As with Michelangelo, the people we love will eventually die, politicians and fanatics will damage our world, our career may become derailed after much work, we will suffer all kinds of pain in life, such as grief, illness, or depression, we will experience loneliness, or betrayal, or hurt from those we love. This is the realist picture, but oit is realist only so long as we recognise that the opposite will also happen. That life has much which is wonderful in it, that we will experience many of those gifts, especially if we have the openness and courage to receive them, and that despite all the bad luck and tragedy, we have a lot of power to make our lives go well. Where we go wrong, is that rather than preferring that things go well, we demand that they do. We demand the perfect.
What is it to demand the perfect? As the psychologist Albert Ellis once said, the thought that I must do well, that others must treat me well, and that life must go well, and all of this all of the time, is a secret demand in every person. But it is madness. And it will make you mad. Ellis, who was one of the greats of twentieth century counselling, had a wonderful sense of humour. He spoke of our demanding attitude as the demandingness tremens. He said that people who insist they should get things always right are shoulding all over themselves. He said that people he insist that "it must be this way" are guilty of constant mustabation. We are all guilty of these things. And the change we need, says Ellis, is to move from a demand to a preference. Accept what is in your control, and what is out of your control. Prefer excellence and strive for it. But accept the limits. After all, life is full of them. Perfection cannot be found in life. If it can be found, it is not in here in concrete life, but rather elsewhere, as Plato showed.
The philosopher Plato pointed out that we can have perfect ideas – say the mathematical idea of a circle – but that such perfection never exists in our material world. Every material circle is imperfect, a mere approximation of the concept of a circle (a round plane figure whose boundary - the circumference - consists of points equidistant from a fixed point - the centre). If a person dedicated themselves to carving circles in glass or stone they might, through effort, create ones that are ever closer to the perfect idea, however they would never achieve that perfection. The perfect idea can only exist their mind. And yet, it is profoundly important that we have this perfect idea. In the sculpture's case, because it guides their ever-improving art of making circles. And everywhere else in life too. Our impulse toward perfection, and many of our ideas or symbols of perfection, guide action and make life ever better. There are people who are constantly striving toward greater efficiency in engines due to our perfect ideas, and toward greater justice in our world in the same way, and I could go on.
What I have just described is a passionate or love-based striving for the ideal. This is different to demanding the ideal. I steer clear of my personal politics in my writing - I'm a counsellor, and no, not everything has to be made political, that's an obsessive reduction of life which leads to madness. But let's take an example of political positions. According to one of the more popular assessments, I'm what you call a libertarian leftist. This surprises some of my friends who think me quite conservative, but that has more to do with my concern always to balance genuine competing perspectives. Many of my friends, however, are deeply concerned about social justice issues in ways which expresses a demand for perfection. That leads to a bad place. It often leads them to authoritarian positions, where they cannot hear or understand other considerations, nor other people. Indeed it leads to them dehumanising other people according to categories, which is contrary to everything I value in politics. The twentieth century has shown us where that leads. At the personal level, however, it is bad two: people become righteous, depressed, narcissistic, utopian fantasists. In fighting hate they become hate. In fighting fascism they become neo-fascists. Orwell said of his political friends that they seemed not to love the poor, so much as to hate the rich. Our ideals, out of which we make art, or social change, need to be based on love. When our motive is hatred for imperfection we go to dark places, whether personally or communally.
A person wants to be a writer but suffers constant procrastination. I have seen this often in therapy. In two thirds of cases we dig down and find that they are in love With the identity and perceived lifestyle of a writer, rather than with writing itself. It is the ego that matters rather than the art. And when they demand perfection of their ego things get worse. When you properly love the ideal, on the other hand, you free yourself. Ideally you have the understanding that you will never reach the thing in its absolute form. And yet the journey ever closer to it gives life shape, meaning, and purpose. Everything looks different. For those of us who create and achieve, we can be nourished and inspired by the ideal objects of our love. We become ever better than we were. David and the Pieta are imperfect: it is conceivable that a greater genius than Michelangelo could have done better: the marble rendered even more electric, the feeling that David might turn his gaze on you even more palpable. These artworks are wondrous because of the high degree to which they approximate that to which Michelangelo strove. For this reason they speak of something, opening our eyes to it without us being able to fully articulate what it is. We reach for words, and words are invited such as good, or true, perhaps with capital letters, but language itself fails us. We are in the realm of creative intuition. These imperfect sculptures are moments of high art that have inspired us to do better things for centuries.
Life is striving, it is a honing of oneself and one’s talents in the direction of perfection, whatever the nature of our particular field of endeavour. Life is also a permanent falling short, so we cannot demand perfection, and if we do, well...that way lies madness. Our challenge is to accept imperfect reality, to learn to laugh at ourselves, or at least to walk lightly, and yet to strive, regardless, for what really matters: for the highest objects of our love, for the highest ideals. We climb "the ladder of love" as the medievals called it, themselves inspired by Plato's Symposium which I highly, highly - highly! - recommend. In doing so our inner lives and our way of being are shaped for the utterly better. Drawn by a deep love of something wonderful, we create more wonder in the world.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good
Susan Nieman, Why Grow Up?