If you are a perfectionist then you may have experienced the procrastination, paralysis, or even anxiety or depression, which can stem from it. It can undermine your achievements and your entire life. We are told therefore to give up perfectionism, but that is one of the great mistakes of the modern age. The age of health and safety, the age of mediocrity. Yes perfectionism is dangerous, but many of the really important things in life are dangerous. Rather than retreat from the challenge of living become skillful with its tools. Understood and used properly, perfectionism can propel you to heights, just as it has done for millennia. Rather than shy from perfection's dangers we need to develop skill in its use. Today I outline how to be perfectionist in a way that leads to achievement. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato will guide us in this.
To understand how to do this, we will look back to one of the wisest people of all time: Plato. We will consider his image of the chariot from his dialogue The Republic. The chariot is composed of three elements, the driver, and two 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. The two horses are names Spiritedness and Desire. I think that perfectionism is an aspect of the horse Spiritedness, for it is the aspect of us which strives from 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, and so on.
The photo above is of Michelangelo's David. His 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 Michelangelo 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 hard 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. But we go wrong when, rather than preferring that things go well, we demand that they do. When we demand perfection of life. The thought that I must do well, that others must treat me well, and that life must go well…and all of the time, is a secret desire in every person. But it is madness, and it will lead you mad. You are not at fault for making this mistake - at an emotional level we all do it - but you need to recognise when you are and learn to soften the demand into a preference. Learn to come to terms with reality and make the best of it. Don't expect 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 geometric 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 material circles.
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.
Take this a step further 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, or any other work of art or work of science that inspires you. The artist and scientist, the business person and the counsellor, 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 serve as a sense of purpose. This means that the pursuit of them gives a sense of meaning to life. And a sense of connection with those who have loved in the same way.
The difference here is in loving something beyond me, the perfect ideal, versus demanding that I be perfect. Or demanding that my life be perfect. I see this regularly with clients. A person wants to be a writer but suffers constant procrastination. In two thirds of cases we dig down and find that they are in love being seen as 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 love the ideal, on the other hand, you free yourself. Ideally you have the wisdom that you will never reach the thing in its absolute form. And yet the journey ever closer gives life shape, meaning, and purpose. Everything looks different. For those of us who create and achieve 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 that they approximate to that which Michelangelo strove...while also falling far short! For this reason they speak of something, opening our eyes to it without us being ever able fully to articulate it. 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 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. In doing so our inner lives and our way of being are shaped for the 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?