How to Be an Imperfectionist

November 10, 2022
Reading time: 3 minutes
Appreciation, Motivation, Perfectionism

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Plato once wrote that in order for any of us to achieve perfection, we’d first have to transcend the imperfection of reality. Yet here we are, believing that perfection isn’t just possible; it’s mandatory! And who can blame us?

The word “perfect” gets thrown around so casually, as in, Isn’t she/he/it just perfect?… I’m going to find the perfect job/house/partner… or It won’t be done until it’s perfect. And the image of so-called perfection is like a dangling golden carrot at every click or scroll. We long to emulate those silky-skinned celebrities, even if it means airbrushing our own snaps to meet the fantasy. Those well-curated Instagram smiles tease us into thinking that everyone else is living in some elusive eternal bliss. Then again, who’s going to post a close-up of their heat rash or an action shot of their child mid-tantrum? I mean, let’s get real… not!

And then we hear that so-and-so got a “perfect” score on this or that measure of excellence. How can we (or our kids) live up to that? Yet that score is merely a symbol of a far less shiny path–one that likely involved hard work with a dash (or a heap) of stress… and no doubt a few (or a lot of) mistakes. It’s a wonderful achievement, but perfection? Not exactly.

Just as Kabbalah teaches that we live in the 1% realm–only perceiving a pin-dot glimpse of what actually exists–we need to rethink our view of perfection… and realize that a) it doesn’t exist and b) even if it did, it would be nowhere near as desirable (or natural!) as imperfection!

For some, the endless pursuit of perfect can lead to what psychologists call “the perfection fallacy.” The perfection fallacy poisons us with the belief that whatever perfection we seek is out there, somewhere… I just have to find/achieve/hold out for it. The problem is, we end up motionless; we’re essentially waiting for a train that will never arrive! If it’s not perfect, we tell ourselves, I’m not going to do/accept/pursue it. Or worse, we think, If I can’t do it well (i.e., perfectly), then I won’t do it at all! But that holding pattern stunts us. When we’re waiting for perfect to arrive, we’ve set up impossible expectations for ourselves and others.

On the other hand, our imperfections–and all the chaos that can come with them–encourage us to move: to change, to correct, to evolve. Our goals (which are perfectly healthy to set) are no longer “final” destinations. Instead, we see them as milestones along the journey of our evolution. Even a public acknowledgment of great achievement, such as a gold medal at the Olympics or a Nobel Prize, still leaves room for growth. There’s always another race to run, another book to write, another level of spiritual awareness to reach! That is the definition of becoming–and it’s far more exciting than any arrival can possibly be.

Even nature relies on imperfection–not perfection–as a driving force for positive transformation. As theoretical physicist Lee Smolin remarked, “Life on earth is a catalog of accidents, alternatives, and errors that turned out to work quite well.” Telmo Pievani affirmed this idea in Imperfection: A Natural History when he explains the purposeful imperfection of human DNA. “[DNA] duplication has always been imperfect: slight changes, deviations, re-combinations,” he writes. It’s because of these “errors” that everything on this planet has been able to adapt and evolve.

Ultimately, letting go of perfection is liberating! It creates endless possibilities. And, despite our society’s insistence otherwise, imperfection has inherent beauty… maybe because we recognize its authenticity. We see ourselves and our humanness in it. Artists like Salvador Dali created masterpieces through studies in asymmetry. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has wowed the world with her measurably asymmetrical, imperfect smile. And some of the most revered musicians’ voices are beloved for their vocal “quirks” (think Bruce Springsteen’s signature rasp or Billie Holiday’s sliding vibrato).

So this week, let’s embrace our imperfections as natural, and even wonderful!

That perfect body? Forget about it. Instead, seek your own best health, stamina, and strength. The perfect job? It doesn’t exist–at least not 100% of the time. But if you can find one that aligns with your values, skills, and passions, you’ll feel a sense of purpose every day. And as for the “perfect” relationship… that sounds pretty dull to me! Our differences, and yes, even our occasional conflicts, can bring us closer and teach us more about each other and ourselves. So if you’ve been holding out for “happily ever after,” you’ll have to rely on Disney, not real life!

Musician Leonard Cohen sang that “there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” The key is to recognize the value in those cracks enough to invite in the Light! To welcome movement and growth. To take chances and make mistakes.

Most of all, we can start by accepting ourselves as we are right here, right now. We are not perfect; we’re better than that! We are all works in progress–beautiful and whole… messes, asymmetries and all.


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