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On Perfectionism

Albert Berk Toledo


Perfectionism. Is it a good thing? Is it the component that enables successful people to create great work? Is it the habit of geniuses who create the tools, the art and the ideas that push civilization forward? Or is it a bad thing that stifles progress, causes creative blocks and leads even the brightest into dead end rabbit holes?

It is funny that a lot of perfectionists believe themselves not to be perfectionists. I myself used to believe that about myself. How could I be a perfectionist? Nothing I did was perfect. Exactly! Perfectionism isn’t about being perfect, it’s about aiming for the perfect and aiming for the perfect naturally leads to seeing imperfections everywhere.

Let’s say we are shaving off a rock to make it a perfect sphere. How do we do that? First we have to see its imperfection. We have to see all the bumps on its surface that differentiates it from a perfect sphere so that we know which parts to shave off. Then we would shave it until we can’t see any more bumps. Does it mean the rock is now a perfect sphere? No. We can use a magnifying glass to see all the little bumps that our eyes can’t. If we shave all those off too, we can then use a microscope to see more imperfection. There is no end to it and that’s the key. Perfect doesn’t exist, not in this world anyways.

Perfect is an idea, it’s a direction.

We live in the world of form, the physical world. As Plato said, this world is merely a shadow of the world of ideas. Expecting perfection in the world of form will only lead to disappointment.

Knowing that perfect is an idea is the trait of a fruitful perfectionist, someone who knows to use the idea of perfect as a compass, someone who sees imperfections as his guide that shows him where to shave next.

So, whether perfectionism is good or bad depends on our relationship to the idea of perfect. In our work, in our relationships, in our politics and more, if we expect things to “be” perfect, it will lead us to disappointment and suffering. If we on the other hand use perfection as our guide, we will keep moving towards it and let all of the imperfections of this world remind us of perfection.