Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Poison of Perfectionism

Last year I had a wonderful conversation on perfectionism with my cousin: a brilliant, accomplished engineer and a devoted husband and father.

He leaned in and told me with his characteristic passion that perfection is mathematically impossible. A person was a finite thing--therefore, he could only do the best he could with the skill, materials, time, and personnel that he had. To put everything on hold until some mythical perfect moment when all the elements were precisely aligned was a foolish way to go through life and great way to never get anything done.

A few months later, we were gathering at a family party expecting to see him shortly, when we received terrible news--he had collapsed and been rushed to the hospital. It was followed shortly by the even more chilling news that he was gone.

Since this all took place around my 40th birthday, his words served as stark warning against my tendency toward big dreams and equally big excuses. I have never been short of ideas. To the contrary, I have a veritable backlog of them. But I am growing ever short of years to accomplish them. My available "somedays" are rapidly contracting--to say nothing of the possibility they could all vanish in an instant.

In each of our hearts, God has seared a mission. A dream.

But we have only a limited time within which to carry it out. As long as we dither around making excuses why we can't make good on it, we set up an irresolvable conflict within ourselves which, inevitably, will sap our energy and poison our relationships. We will begin to despair. Our lives will be a constant reminder of how we are not doing what we were meant to do. We will become embittered, angry, and frustrated.

I am becoming convinced that a lot of unhappiness in myself and in the world--perhaps most of it--comes from exactly this prideful inflation of our dreams by making them more grandiose and less attainable than they really are.

Contrary to what most of us big dreamers think, the limitations that we complain about are not an impediment. They are an opportunity. An opportunity to start small, get a hold of the basics, grow in experience, and then be ready when and if the big break ever comes. Getting lucky--having that big break fall into your lap before you are prepared to handle it--is more a curse than a blessing. It is a recipe for grandiose failure. Compare entrepreneurs who slowly build a business over decades with folks who suddenly come into millions and you'll see what I mean.

Abraham Lincoln called attention to exactly this aspect of human nature in his address to the Wisconsin Fair in 1859:

The ambition for broad acres leads to poor farming, even with men of energy. I scarcely ever knew a mammoth farm to sustain itself; much less to return a profit upon the outlay. I have more than once known a man to spend a respectable fortune upon one; fail and leave it; and then some man of more modest aims, get a small fraction of the ground, and make a good living upon it. Mammoth farms are like tools or weapons, which are too heavy to be handled. Ere long they are thrown aside, at a great loss.

Mammoth dreams are the same way--too heavy to be handled, and soon thrown aside. Instead of satisfaction, there is only frustration.

There is, on the other hand, a great peace that comes with living a dream that is just our size. While we may fantasize about acres and orchards, we might find immeasurable happiness in 20 square feet of garden in a tiny suburban plot, or even in some potted herbs on the 16th floor of a high-rise. And perhaps by proving ourselves with these little responsibilities, we will be better able to tackle bigger ones, should the opportunity ever come.

The Scriptures tell us that through sin, death entered into the world. Many people view that as a kind of retribution: we did bad, so we got punished.

Perhaps not. Once sin introduced in all of us the tendency to selfishly waste, the tendency to languish and dither, the tendency to sulk and mope about what we don't have, perhaps God reclaimed the mammoth, unwieldy sprawl of eternity as a mercy. Perhaps He knew that immortality for a selfish being invariably meant, as it was for Douglas Adams's Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, a descent into boredom, bitterness, and Hell.

Our limited time on earth may be God's way of saving us from such a monstrous eternity, a way of focusing our dim, inconstant, flickering love into something manageable, something achievable.

Don't wait, my cousin would say, for perfection to do good. Start small. Pare down your ideas to fit the life you have. Then grow in experience, grow in wisdom, and grow in the satisfaction that you are doing what you were put on this earth to do.

Then, if God should deign in His infinite mercy to bless you one day with the whole of eternity, you will know what to do with it.


  1. "Don't wait, my cousin would say, for perfection to do good. Start small. Pare down your ideas to fit the life you have. Then grow in experience, grow in wisdom, and grow in the satisfaction that you are doing what you were put on this earth to do."

    Good advice. If you do that, you may wake up some morning and find out that you actually did something really, really big and important after all.

  2. Fausto was not a perfect person but he was perfect for me. I used to think how perfect my life was then I lost my husband and a best friend in the span of 5 months. I used to be a perfectionist but now in the midst of trying to pick up the pieces of my life I just try to do the best that I can. Some days my best isn't good enough but I need to keep moving forward and remember that it's ok, tomorrow is another day and you can try again. My friend Laura and I sometimes look at each other and wonder how we got here. What happened? Maybe God put us together as friends to get through this crap together. Maybe there was a reason for all this. I try not to think about it too much, it can drive you insane. I need to live now for the future for my child but never forget the past. It's the past that makes me strive for the perfection that we all seek.