If you are a perfectionist then you have probably experienced the procrastination, paralysis, or even anxiety or depression, which flows from it. It can undermine your achievements, and your entire life. We are advised therefore to give up perfectionism, and often that is sage. But nothing is ever simple: it can also be a great mistake. The good life is suspended by a thread made of fine distinctions. In this age of health and safety, this age of mediocrity in certain aspects of life, we confuse important things. Yes perfectionism is dangerous, but many of the really important things in life are dangerous. It is a double-edged sword. Rather than retreat from the challenge of living, become skillful with its tools. Including the sharp ones. Understood and used properly, perfectionism can propel you to heights, just as it has done for millennia. Today I outline how to be perfectionist in a way that leads to achievement. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato will give authority to what I say and he will guide us in understanding this important aspect of life.
Let’s begin 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. But without the horses the driver can go nowhere. The driver is Reason. One horse is named Spiritedness. The other is Desire. I think that perfectionism is an aspect of the horse Spiritedness, for it is the aspect of us which strives for greater things. But Spiritedness can get out of control and cause a crash, so it needs Reason to steer it. What I am doing today is speaking to your Reason, so that you can use your Spiritedness to get somewhere with your passions, without crashing in the form of procrastination, anxiety, self-hate, and so on.
The photo above is of Michelangelo's David. Michelangelo’s life was far from perfect. His mother died when he was six. He lived in unstable times and was forced to leave Florence - the place where he had built his career - by religious zealots. He suffered depression throughout his life. In matters of love he was unsuccessful at best - at worst he was used and abused. It is said that he lived in squalor. 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 undergo pain such as grief, illness, or depression, and at times we will be lonely, or betrayed or hurt by those we love. This is the realist picture, so long as we also recognise that the opposite things will also happen, that life has much that is wonderful in it, and we can do a very great deal - a very great deal - to make it go that way. But we go wrong when, rather than preferring that things go well, we demand that they do.
As the philosophical 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 lead you mad. Ellis called it the “demandingness tremens.” At an emotional level we all make this mistake in certain ways and to certain degrees, but you need to recognise when you are, and learn to soften that demand into a preference. Learn to come to terms with reality and make the best of it. Make the best of it in terms of accepting what is out of your control, and making the what is in your control the best it can be, but don’t demand perfection of life. It cannot be found there. But it can be found elsewhere, as Plato shows.
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 perfect concept of a circle. If a person dedicated themselves to carving circles they might, through effort, create ones that are ever closer to the perfect idea - a round plane figure whose boundary (the circumference) consists of points equidistant from a fixed point (the centre) - however they would never achieve that perfection. The perfect idea can only exist their mind. But it is important nonetheless, because it guides their ever-improving art of making circles. The pursuit of the ideal makes a real difference in the world.
Now think beyond circles to how we have shaped our world according to ideas. How our world has become better and better because of the high standards in our minds which we can never reach. But which guide us to strive and improve. Think about this in technology, thinking about it in well-being and flourishing, in justice, in adventure, in art....
And imagine how in love with circles the carver is. They find the idea, and the material approximations, beautiful. If circles bore you, consider Michelangelo's David. The artist, Iike the scientist, philosopher, business-person, therapist...all these and many more are inspired by the perfect - or at least high - ideals which guide their work. These ideals not only make them better and better, they are objects of love. They give intrinsic joy or at least meaning to the activity, even while it is rooted in some pragmatic purpose. A whole spirituality of work and effort can be based on this, and has been throughout the ages. For countless many it has given a deep part of the meaning to their life.
What I have just described is a passionate or love-based striving for the ideal, which should be distinguished from demanding the ideal. I see anger in my circles of friends, who are deeply concerned about social justice, but in a way which sometimes expresses a demand for perfection. That leads to hate, to criticism, to nowhere good. I am not surprised that they become so depressed. And don’t seem to do much to really help others, beyond talk. As George Orwell said of his Marxist friends, they seemed not to love the poor, so much as to hate the rich. Change the world out of love for others and the world, not out of hatred for imperfection.
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?