perfection is the enemy of success.
Simply put: If we always strive for perfection before committing to action, that’s a sure-fire guarantee we will never achieve anything worthwhile.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not against perfection per-say. Rather I want to draw attention to the fact that waiting for the perfect moment in life, or striving for perfection, can keep us stuck where we are—in the mud of life. In other words, the ideal of perfection should never be an excuse for inaction.
Firstly, rather than waiting for everything to be perfect, it’s much better to prepare as best you can, then begin by taking the first step, and be aware of any errors, or missteps, along the way. In other words, use your action and interaction with the world around you as a source of feedback, and then correct your course as you go.
This idea is not to dissimilar to sailing a ship to its destination. Course correct occurs all the way to the ships final port of call. Traveling in a straight, perfect line to a destination, isn’t what ships do. The sea, just like life, just wont allow that to happen.
Secondly, aim for constant improvement, rather than reach for the impossible ideal of pure perfection. Work on what you can change right now to move you in the direction you want to go, no matter how small a step it may be. Ultimately these small steps combined over time, will lead to success.
Thirdly, learn to love the mess of living.
Yup, I know, not something we really want to hear.
Learn to Love the Mess
The truth is if you are ever going to have any success in life, you have to begin by accepting that being and doing your best — in fact success itself—is a process of imperfection. Perfection is an illusion.
Taking a lesson from my martial arts experience, in practice we are always striving to get as close to perfection as possible, but in application we seek only a satisfactory approximation of that perfection. In other words, while perfection is something to consistently aim for, it will likely never be achieved, at least, not how we imagine it to be. Like it or not, we simply do not have that degree of control over anything in life.
Rather than try to overcome imperfection, one should learn to embrace it, to see its beauty. The Japanese have a beautiful term for this: “wabi-sabi”— which is the ability to perceive beauty in imperfection. The character Katsumoto in the movie The Last Samurai captures this understanding perfectly.
Early in the movie he says, “The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one.” But towards the end of the movie, as he gazes upon thousands of cherry blossoms, with his dying breath he says, “Perfect . . . they are all . . . perfect.” Katsumoto has come to understand that perfection is an illusion, and that there is great beauty and possibility held within that imperfection.
It is difficult to grasp this I know.
In life, we are constantly pushed and told to be perfect. Mistakes are often ridiculed, or worse, punished. Everyone who has suffered through Western education will recognise the intense and relentless focus on getting things “just right,” and that making mistakes is frowned upon. The paradox however is that in order to truly find our strengths, you have to be willing, and be allowed, to make mistakes, to embrace imperfection; and through that experience you can discover what you are really good at.
So, while we strive for perfection in the future, we embrace imperfection in the present, using it as building blocks, as in the moment feedback for growth and development.
Talent Is Overrated
Research confirms, again and again, that superstars in any field did not start out with overwhelming talent. Sure, they might have started with a slight edge, but the real difference in the long-run, is that they simply worked much, much harder than the rest of us. They have embraced their imperfection, and built on that. What’s more, this principle of building on imperfection applies in all areas of our lives.
Not only is perfection an illusion; trying to be perfect actually leads to stagnation. Alan Watts, a noted British-American philosopher noted:
“To Taoism [ a Chinese philosophy], that which is absolutely still or absolutely perfect is absolutely dead, for without the possibility of growth and change there can be no Tao [the way]. In reality there is nothing in the universe which is completely perfect or completely still; it is only in the minds of men that such concepts exist.”
While we may not live in a perfect world, we do live in a world filled with possibilities. But, moving from possibilities to real accomplishments requires action—not action tomorrow when you think everything will be perfect, but rather action right now, especially when you know everything isn’t perfect.
Action Steps Revisited
- Use Immediate Feedback to Correct Your Course: Don’t wait for perfection until you make a move. Use your action and interaction with the world around you as a source of feedback, and then correct your course as you go.
- Take Action Now, No Matter How Small: Aim for constant improvement, rather than reach for the impossible ideal of pure perfection. Work on what you can change right now to move you in the direction you want to go, no matter how small a step it may be. Ultimately these small steps combined over itme, will lead to success.
- Love The Mess: Success in life begins by accepting that being and doing your best is a process of imperfection. Don’t see ‘imperfection’ as an obstacle to success, but the very nature of success coming into being. In other words, the answer is in the problem.