Friday, January 23, 2009

On Perfection

Thank you Brad and Kim for the thoughtful comments to my 100 Shiny Red Stars post, particularly around "practice makes perfect." You pierce a flaw knit into the fabric of my last post.

Let's look at authoring a post as a metaphor for perfection in general. If I ever tried to make this post cover every single aspect in every single way, the ideation process would either be stifled then replaced with something derivative and vapid -or- the post would be worked on ad infinitum (or more likely ad nauseum), paralyzed by the need for perfection. The irony to the latter being that nothing would be released, which is about as imperfect and incomplete as you can be. There needs to be a moment when one knows it is ready for posting. Timing, completeness, novelty, style, and polish are all important factors which must be balanced and can never all be maxed out. Fortunately, I can always darn the holes later, as they're discussed. The whole benefit of the writing is to engage in discussion, and the holes and other perspectives all allow the discussion to come in. If my posts could be perfect, there'd be no room for discussion - BORING! And, ahem, not so perfect.

This shows that the definition of perfection is hard to get a firm hold on. It is an elusive fish that slips through our grasps. We cannot really talk about whether practice does or does not make perfect if we do find common ground on its meaning, otherwise we cannot tell if we're disagreeing or miscommunicating. What many of us so often forget is that we all have different contexts for the words that we choose, and perfection certainly can be looked upon in many ways. For instance, Aristotle has several definitions of perfection that he enumerated in Delta of the Metaphysics: (from Wikipedia)
  1. that which is complete - which contains all the requisite parts
  2. that which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better
  3. that which has attained it's purpose
Even with three definitions, I still feel that they are limiting in at least two ways.
  • First, they lend themselves to the endless striving (so yang), a baggage adopted by many parts of Western culture. This has led to the movement to let go of "perfectionism", seen as a personality flaw.
  • Second, and paradoxically, it tricks you into thinking that there is an end, and attainment of the end purpose would be self-nullifying. As soon as you attain the purpose, you no longer have a purpose, no raison d'etre.
There are other definitions that see perfection as akin to elegance, a certain honesty of nature residing within that can only be achieved in the context of reality. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi embodies this, and is often translated to mean that "perfection can only be found in imperfection." Renaissance philosophers also explored this concept, evidence of independent creation outside of Eastern traditions. When I spoke with Brad about this, he confided that it resonated with him: "I can see that. I can relate to it even. I've had experiences where I've felt that everything is perfect exactly the way it is, even in it's imperfection."

Regarding the "Practice makes permanent." I don't have such a fluid definition of permanence, and believe that it is neither attainable within oneself nor a virtue. I prefer flexibility (to demonstrate, my beliefs will be flexible if someone wants to pose alternative definitions). Our skills often regress when maintenance subsides and practice diminishes. We have to keep flexing our practice muscles to prevent atrophy. When I studied Tang Soo Do, my master proposed another saying: "Perfect practice makes perfect." I didn't want to touch this idea in the original post. It can be interpreted in fear that wrong practice will mess something up, though I think that this notion is also possible to address and learn from. There are just a lot more knots to untie in it. Rather, I'll start by making a little more sense of "practice makes perfect" and I'll leave the other as exercises for the reader. (wink)

If you combine the concept of wabi-sabi with Aristotle's third definition - perfection is that which has attained its purpose - it helps define practice circularly. When we first begin our practice, it is in one place and has a more specific or scoped purpose. Over time, the purpose itself broadens, deepens, and/or shifts. Practice leads the way to this place, this new target for the practice. We never quite reach the ability to attain the purpose, since the target is also moving, but we have attained future definitions of the purpose. There's a freedom in always reaching perfection in one sense and never reaching perfection in another. It gives practice purpose, and a never-ending one at that.

Note: I love a good paradox like that. We can learn so much. I think this might make a good topic for a mindfulness practice of the week.

Request for Comments - no lonely posts, please!
What does perfection mean to you? What does it create for you?
Care to challenge my definition of permanence and open my eyes?


  1. "perfection" exists within a system. System changes will adjust what is perfect. Resources available and constraints have an impact on what is treated as perfect.

    Perfection is also related to expectation. Thus could be different as we grow, learn and change. And individual of course.

    Maybe perfection should be treated as a direction more than a destination.

    Anyway, great post. Really made me start to re-think my view of perfect/perfection.

  2. a jangbrand - thank you for your comments. Lately I've been holding onto Voltaire's concept "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." This helps keep me productive instead of waiting to do, say, or act on something *just so*. David Eggers once talked about this on his blog, saying that he kept delaying a post, treating it as "a little too precious". This is what I referred to in my haiku #8: Just Write!

    I like how your comments bring up the notion of perfection within a system. Do you think of this as relative perfection vs. absolute perfection?