Topic

Perfectionism

Letting go of perfect expands what we’re capable of.

The Spice of Life

When I was a teenager, my hometown decided to mandate that all trash and recycling bins had to be exactly the same.

The reason was greater efficiency. If everyone used a specific model of trash can, trucks could use a claw arm to more reliably grab each one and dump its contents inside.

Almost overnight, identical bins appeared on the sidewalks in front of every home. Seeing the same bins everywhere was a little weird – not quite dystopian, but it felt like a step in that direction.

That kind of uniformity is common in industrialized societies. On a road trip last weekend, I got deja vu multiple times while pulling into rest areas that featured the same collection of national chains.

Variety is the spice of life, so the saying goes, and this tension between consistency (and the efficiency it affords) and variety plays out in so many areas.

When professional musicians record their music, they often use a computer to get every note perfectly on the beat. But we lose something when music is “perfected” this way.

This is part of the reason why seeing musicians live is so exhilarating. Slightly imperfect rhythm makes their work more human and more expressive.

Chipotle considered this principle when they designed Chippy, a robot to make their chips. Here's Chipotle VP of Culinary Nevielle Panthaky:

Everyone loves finding a chip with a little more salt or an extra hint of lime. To ensure we didn’t lose the humanity behind our culinary experience, we trained Chippy extensively to ensure the output mirrored our current product, delivering some subtle variations in flavor that our guests expect.

If every chip is perfectly, uniformly seasoned, it’s actually an inferior product.

Because the anticipation of something a little different keeps us coming back for more.

Perfect the Process

Not everything needs to be as good as you can make it. @shreyas argues that every task falls into one of three categories:

  1. Leverage tasks (high impact)
  2. Neutral tasks (these should just be good enough)
  3. Overhead tasks (just get them over with)

If you're used to treating every little thing like a leverage task, making this transition is easier said than done.

But Nate Soares has a strategy for that called "half-assing it with everything you've got":

I personally find that shooting for the minimum acceptable quality is usually fun. Doing the homework assignment is boring, but finding a way to get the homework assignment up to an acceptable level with as little total effort as possible is an interesting optimization problem that actually engages my wits, an optimization problem which both my inner perfectionist and my inner rebel can get behind.

If your output doesn't need to be perfect, you can instead focus on optimizing the process.

By making a game out of figuring out the easiest way to get something done, you can free yourself to get more done and have more fun along the way.

Circus

Circus is a dance with failure. The performers who train every day to soar through the air on trapeze have fallen many times, so that when the time comes to do it for an audience, they'll hit their mark.

Niels Bohr said, "An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field."

The path to mastery, therefore, is simply to make all the mistakes, and learn from them.

But even the best mess up sometimes, especially if you're trying to accomplish something as difficult as most circus tricks.

A good juggler understands this. They'll tell you that a dropped ball or club is simply an opportunity for another trick. They've practiced making mistakes.

But Ricky, one of the Flying Wallendas who famously don't use a net when walking across the tightwire says, "There's no way to practice falling from 30 feet." Having a net, they argue, makes falling more likely, because it makes you overconfident.

But still, the Wallendas do practice falling from shorter heights.

That way, when they step out on the high wire, they can clear their mind and concentrate, confident in their thousands of hours of preparation.

But not too confident.

Moral Absolutism

The world is messy, and our attempts to paint it in black and white often fail to capture its complexity.

It's tempting to categorize things as either all good or all bad. But everything lies on a spectrum.

We run into trouble when we try to adhere to perfect standards. Someone who prides themselves on their honesty may still occasionally tell a white lie. But those small exceptions don't necessarily invalidate that person's work to present themselves truthfully and authentically to the world.

Certainly, we should hold one another accountable and call out hypocrisy when it is truly damaging.

But we must also recognize that moral absolutism prevents us from seeing in shades of grey.

Windstorms

If you try to stand up perfectly straight in a windstorm, you'll topple over.

Trying to maintain perfection, it turns out, makes you vulnerable. And not in the good way.

Standing with your legs slightly apart to drop your center of gravity makes you more resistant to the forces of the world acting on you.

It's a true paradox: By avoiding the trap of perfect, you can more effectively shift your posture to adapt to changing conditions.

Perfectionism comes from a place of fear. But when we give ourselves permission to let go – to drop our center of gravity – we can live from a place of strength, instead.

Good Enough

Perfect doesn't exist, but good enough does.

The trouble is that good enough is different for everything. Striking out only every other time you step up to the plate will make you the best player in the history of baseball. But an airbag that deploys correctly 90% of the time? That's a failure.

The line between good enough and failure is often slim. When we define what the former is, we free ourselves from the the Sisyphean pursuit of perfect.

Wrong Notes

Miles Davis once said, "It's not the note you play that's the wrong note – it's the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong."

This is true, of course, for much more than music.

In high school, I once saw our theatre director approach the stage manager after a dress rehearsal. The stage manager was clearly upset, and expressed disappointment that she had only called about half the sound and light cues on time.

"So you're batting .500!" exclaimed the director.

In baseball, getting a hit every other time you step up to the plate would be a miraculous accomplishment (the average is closer to .250).

You're never going to be perfect, and that's OK. The goal is simply to hit the balls that you can and accept that you might miss most of the time.

And when you do miss – whether it's a ball, a note, or something else – just remember it's the next one that counts.

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