perfection is the enemy of good

meditation Nov 12, 2021

I struggle with extremes. This has helped me become wildly successful at incredibly specific things, but also prevented me from enjoying the spectacular beauty of the imperfect world I live in.

When people ask me to share the most important thing I learned in college, I always have to say, "We're going for optimization, not perfection."

This is hard for me to come to terms with. Many of my friends would describe me as a perfectionist. Further, I was raised at home and taught in school under the assumption that I would never "do anything halfway." This is a very good teaching for the person who struggles to find motivation to get out of bed before noon (I'm sorry if you're that person. If so this post is not for you)! But for me, it became limiting and exhausting because I truly believed–and experienced!–that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to: I could become the best bassoonist, the best literary critic, the best student, the best scientist, or even the best person if I just put in enough time and effort.

I want to make something clear: I'm not saying that perfection is unattainable. Many have tried to prove that it isn't, but in order to prove it you must first define it. Defining perfection is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I will point out that, in my experience, we never attempt to define the perfection we're chasing. Taking the time to define it would not only detract from the time we must invest to pursue it, but it would also reveal how incapable we are of defining and concretizing the object of our desires.

Instead, I'm here to say that reaching perfection is an illusion, a waste of time, and a poor use of resources. Here's a story I made up to help me internalize this fact:

There was a farmer. This farmer had a thousand seeds. This farmer decided to be a perfect farmer, so he wanted to make all of his seeds grow. He plowed and tilled and watered and fertilized, but he was a failure. Only nine hundred of his seeds grew into sellable crops. He sold those crops for a huge profit, paid off all his debts, fixed his tractor, and bought ten thousand seeds to try again. This season, only eighty-five thousand of his seeds became crops. He was getting worse! Since he'd already paid off his debts and his tractor didn't need repair, he spent all his profit to buy all the fields around his so he could plant one hundred thousand seeds in the coming season. When the next harvest came, nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand of his seeds had grown. If he'd let a thousand seeds die in the first year, he would have had zero crops! He must do better this year...

This story illustrates that we are both incapable of defining perfection and that achieving it is never worth it. Instead, I will quote from Richard Foster: "A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain."

In our life, we have no direct power over what our bodies do or what our minds think. I've gone entire weeks where the first thing I say when I get out of bed was, "I will be patient and kind to everyone! Patient and kind!" But the first thing I do when I get to school is gripe to my classmates about the inability of the professor to teach and the difficulty of the homework. That's not very patient or kind.

Instead of lying to myself and believing that I can jump straight from seed to harvest, I should take time to cultivate my life in such a way that patience and kindness sprout up naturally.

I will meditate, consciously observing my thought patterns to understand why I have no patience for professors who can't teach. I'll realize that it's because I want to understand things and I want to get good grades. Following that line of thought, I will then realize that I don't want my grades to motivate me (for reasons covered in my earlier posts). At that point, I can accept the noble endeavor of coming to understand something. But how can I best achieve that? Complaining about the professor surely won't help, (though it makes me feel vindicated when my classmates agree with me). Instead, asking more questions in class will help. This has an added bonus: my questions will show my professors where my confusion lies so they will be able to improve their teaching as the semester progresses!

That meditation took no more than one minute to do and no more than three minutes to solidify and write down. In my opinion, that was an enormously profitable four minutes. Not only have I learned that my problem with patience and kindness had nothing to do with my inability to be patient or kind, but I also learned what positive action I can take to improve the situation and help the source of my impatience become better at their job. Isn't this much better than griping to my friends? Now that I know this, it'll be really hard for me to go into class on Monday and complain. Problem solved!

It's almost like patience and kindness sprung up naturally from the practice of meditation. This should not be a surprise since patience and kindness are part of the "fruit of the spirit," and meditation has been one of the most important spiritual practices for literally thousands of years across every culture, religion, and creed. (Note that even atheists and materialists espouse the benefits of meditation as a source of internal peace and external growth.)

This post is the first in a series of approximately twelve posts based on how the Celebration of Discipline has improved my life.

You can find all the posts in my series on Celebration of Discipline here:

celebration of discipline - tate
a life observed

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