Perfection – are you friend or foe?

Yes, there are a few mistakes. No it isn’t perfect. But it’s all work in progress, right? 

Perfection. Aren’t we all striving for it? Some of more than others perhaps, but perfection is a nagging friend (or foe?), it is like that whispering, vicious little voice that sometimes pipes up at the back of your mind.

You could do better. It’s not good enough. Start again. There is so much better than you…

Recently, it has taken me a lot of effort to shut this voice down, enough so I can focus on a task without feeling like it is worthless or pointless. Some days are more successful than others but as long as you can produce something, you’ll be fine. As long as you can stop treading water and move along, you’ll be fine. Stagnating waters suck you in.
“Why bother when it will never be perfect? Why make the effort when it is likely to fail?”

Edison-failing

Perfection shouldn’t be a goal because it will never be achieved. It’s like happiness. Both ephemeral concepts, quickly replaced by my greedy friend “more”. “More money, more words, more changes, more attempts” When do we draw the line? When is a novel finished? When is a composition perfect? When is a recording flawless? How many times can I tweak my plot until it becomes ridiculous?

Being a writer is tough. But so is being a pianist. A designer. A lamp-maker…. I remember my piano lessons and Madame Boyer. To this day, I present her as the best piano teacher in the whole wide world. But if I think it through, she was a perfectionist. A strict yet loving perfectionist.

Less pedal, you’re drowning out the melody, sing it in your head, don’t speed up or I’ll bring out the metronome, don’t forget you’ve got a forte here, feel the power, long, heavy chords, one, two, three, one, two, three, careful with the tempo, Allegro, not Vivace, slow down, one, two, three, I think it’s time for the metronome, be precise, your arpeggios need to be lighter, clearer, like you’re flying above the keyboard, keep your back straight, your shoulders down, be natural, poised, don’t shrug, again, start again, I don’t want to hear that natural, it’s a sharp, watch your fingers, your left hand is falling behind, your tremolo isn’t rapid enough, I know you’re tired, but let’s do it once more, one, two, three, one, two, three…

Has she passed this on to me? The probability is high. But without perfectionism, I would not have spent countless hours practising before a concert, exam or competition. Without perfectionism, I would not have endeavoured to learn a 20-page long piece by myself and repeated it, bar by bar, until my ears were content and my fingers were on fire.

Without perfectionism, I would not have written over 140,000 words and rummaged through every single book there is about Moroccan tribes, colonialism and Saharan stories in the British Library. I would not have woven a plot so complex even I lose track sometimes.

Does this mean I have finished this novel? No. Does this mean I have full control over it? Afraid not. This is why perfection needs to be tuned down. It needs to go down from fortissimo to just forte and at times, maybe even mezzo-forte

So in the end, is perfection friend or foe? What do you say?

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25 responses to “Perfection – are you friend or foe?

  1. Well THERE’s an excellent topic for discussion! As with most things, I’m of two minds (or more:0)), and think it is both friend and foe depending on the particulars. Most of the “successful” people I know (and everyone who works in medicine) are very perfectionistic – because evidently it is a requirement for excellence (not to mention safety when responsible for others’ medical care). But the downside is that the more complicated and rigidly perfectionistic the requirements of the world become, the more frustrating and difficult it becomes….not everyone wants to live like that. The idea that if we only were more perfect (and worked faster, smarter, harder….) we would “succeed”, isn’t really accurate anymore – that requires opportunity that is very limited now.

    I read recently that a creative mind is like a Border Collie – if it doesn’t have a job to do, it gets itself into trouble – so it’s best to give it a job to do. I try to do one productive thing each day – as you said, if you produce something, it’s helpful to quiet that perfectionistic voice. I think you’re piano teacher had it right – that some perfectionism along with loving-kindness works well, but as you say, it serves us well to recognize when it’s time to turn down the volume on the perfectionism so we can not drive ourselves nuts with it and take breaks to live in a less driven way sometimes.

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    • I think it’s both too. As long as we manage to find a healthy middle.
      I absolutely loved the Border Collie comparison. I didn’t know it and yet, it is SO very true I found myself laughing. I am constantly doing something new and as creative as it is, I fear it is keeping me from the most important stuff (like actually finishing editing this novel!) but I love it too much to stop! :D

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow – now that’s some food for thought. Perfectionism does drive us to be better, do better. It helps us move past mediocre to something great. It also can bury us with self-doubt and worry. It is, as they say, a double edged sword that demands caution, but not abandonment. :)

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    • It really is a double edge sword, isn’t it? It is true that most perfectionists I know have achieved incredible things but there comes a time when it’s healthy to say “I’m happy now”. Does that time ever come you think? Wait and see I guess!

      Liked by 1 person

      • For perfectionists? I’m not sure. My wife is one, I’m far from it. However, I think that there are lots of times where she steps back and says “this is good” because her need to drive further can come at costs too high for her. :)

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  3. This is an interesting thought. I’m of two minds. I live with two perfectionists. Hard as they try, they are never satisfied, constantly frustrated. They produce wonderful work, but never enjoy it as much as others. Perfectionism is both “friend and foe”.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I used to think I was a perfectionist until I saw my wife and son struggle with their efforts. I do my best, which at times is pretty good, but when I don’t have the right tool, enough time, or feel inspired, I’ll say that’s good enough. I really don’t think perfection exists. There is always room for improvement, and I’ve learned to be more accepting of my imperfections.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautifully written as always, and thoughtful and thought provoking. I love the voice of Madame Boyer, which epitomises so severely what you’re talking about. As does your playing. My mother used to tweak the saying “If a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing well” to “If a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing.” This was always a comforting thought to me, but maybe it fed into my laziness. I can’t actually think of any perfection I’ve achieved, except maybe a few times professionally.

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    • Ah, Madame Boyer, however strict she was, she remains in my head after all those years, her encouraging voice whispering instructions and bits of advice while I play.
      Your mother’s version is interesting and definitely true. The normal saying does imply failure if not achieved well and we shouldn’t be taught that way.
      Hmm… if you can’t think of any perfection you’ve achieved, maybe you are a perfectionist too…? (it’s so hard to acknowledge our achievements when we think we can do better!)

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  5. Lovely piece. Like others here, perfection is both friend and foe to me, friend when it inspires me to perfect what I am doing, and foe when judges what I’ve actually accomplished.

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  6. Your novel has 140,000 words? I’m shooting somewhere in the range of 70-80K for my second draft. Thank you for sharing the video. It shows your talent and passion. Perfectionism has its place, but it is better when we reign it in as often as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t know, I think you give perfectionism too much credit here. I think you can be motivated to work hard and strive for excellence (at least whatever that means to you) without being a perfectionist.

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  8. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to seek perfection, but I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect to find it — especially in anything complex like a novel. I’ll bet Ernest Hemingway or Herman Melville read the finished, printed copies of their own masterpieces and despaired.

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    • Oh, it is absolute delusion! True perfectionists will probably never find perfection and that is where it becomes dangerous!
      Ha! It’s funny to think that, isn’t it? Such great minds. Could it be linked with self-confidence? I wonder…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It could be! By the way, I’m not sure if I actually mentioned this to you in a comment or not yet, but I’m very impressed by how well you play the piano. I wish I could play my chosen instruments (the acoustic guitar, the paper and comb, and the spoons) to even a hundredth of your level. :)

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      • Well, I guess part of it is who we are comparing ourselves to when we do things. I have a feeling that a bad performance for you would be an outstanding one for most people. You really seem to be very good. :)

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