Tuesday, November 26, 2013

In defense of perfectionism

Punschlied (after Friedrich Schiller). 16"×20". Oil on linen. January 2013
I've chosen this painting to illustrate today's post, because everyone knows that a glass of Punsch must be perfect, right? Why ever would one want anything less than that? What's the point?

I've been thinking a lot about "perfectionism" lately, and why it has received so much bad publicity. It seems the older I get, the more I feel that there are fewer and fewer things in life worth doing without at least an attempt for perfectionism. Simultaneously, I hear (and read) more and more about how wrong it is, how stifling it may be; even immoral, occasionally. Recently, I read that perfectionism is what distinguishes amateur artists from professionals, but not the way I expected: supposedly, only amateur artists suffer from this plague of perfectionism, whereas the professional ones always hurry to the next work, accepting the drawbacks of the current one as a necessary learning experience. I don't really want to give a link to where I read it, because it's not the point: this attitude seems to be everywhere. I've even read somewhere an absurd claim that Cezanne was somehow wrong in his relentless perfectionism: obviously, his paintings were all right, so his dissatisfaction with them must have been a mistake, mustn't it? Why would he stubbornly return to them again and again, year after year, when the reasonable approach would be just to start another one, like a serious "professional artist"?

But is this approach something you would be willing to expect (and accept) from others? Say, do you appreciate it when your dentist hurries to the next patient, blissfully accepting the errors they've made with your own unique teeth as a necessary learning experience? Or would you like to live in a house built with this sort of attitude -- as I happen to do: our builder obviously didn't suffer from perfectionism, so we are now in the midst of a legal claim against them... Or do you enjoy a sloppy job from a chef in the nearby restaurant? Or a Google+ update filled with bugs to the brim?

I suspect every single one of us has had an experience like this, and secretly (or not so secretly) wished for more perfectionism from dentists, builders, engineers, designers, chefs etcetera etcetera etcetera, however it may stifle their creativity. So why is it, then, that the meme of anti-perfectionism is still happily spreading in our collective consciousness, and steadily increases the overall degree of sloppiness in all human-made things around us?  

From what I see, there are three types of situations when the anti-perfectionism meme might be genuinely useful:

  • Study. Within the context of learning, there are indeed many situations when it's better to begin another attempt, rather than try to correct the previous one. In fact, lots of failed attempts are to be expected while one is studying and practicing. And yet it seems that this is an argument for the very necessity of studies (as something separate from one's professional work), rather than against perfectionism per se: indeed, don't we all hope that our dentists and builders will have left years of studies (and failures) behind them, and approach our mouths and our houses with a different attitude? Shouldn't an artist require nothing less than this of themselves?  
  • Urgency. My grandfather used to tell this story: that his commanding officer, during the war (WWII) kept telling them "If you guys cannot do it fast and well, then do it fast and badly." (It wasn't about actual military actions: my grandfather's work during the war had to do with his near-native expertise in German: translation, propaganda leaflets, that kind of thing). Presumably, it was warranted in the war time: when something isn't done fast, it's pointless do it at all. In the time of peace, too, there might be some situations of this type; one doesn't have the time to do something perfectly, but it's better to do it anyway, at least somehow (cleaning one's kitchen inevitably comes to mind here).
  • Fear of failure. The argument goes that it's one's perfectionism that produces this fear: one has to let go of perfectionism in order to be ready for a failure. Frankly, I don't believe this -- simply because I know many hard-core perfectionists, and all of them know that failures are inevitable and are ready for them. They just don't confuse failures with finished work. In other words, fearlessness and perfectionism are not just compatible; I believe one cannot be a perfectionist and be afraid of failure at the same time. In the context of this argument, the word "perfectionism" works just as a thin disguise for fear.       

The bottom line, it seems, is this: nowadays, there is a limited range of situations where the anti-perfectionism meme is useful, that is, when the need to do something fast, however imperfectly, is really urgent and unavoidable. But from this limited domain, the meme spreads, it would seem, everywhere, from sloppy buildings to badly edited books to faulty software; and to art, of course. Why? Because this meme seems to "win" against two less fashionable ones: the need to study, and the fear of failure. 

And the reason it wins, I think, is simply because it tends to make people feel better about themselves (and so, happier). It is somehow more pleasant to admit, even to oneself, to one's perfectionism -- than to the fact that one simply hasn't studied enough; or, even more so, than to recognize the fear of failure within oneself.   

Arguably, making people feel happier is a useful function of a meme "in itself"; and I am all for everyone's happiness. Still, I cannot help but dream about the end of this age of sloppiness, and perfectionism's triumphant return...  

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