Monday, November 14, 2011

A Job Well Done vs. Perfect

"Tis a gift to be simple," according to the Shaker hymn popularized by Aaron Copland. The Shakers understood the difference between simplicity--one of their highest virtues--and simplistic. Any fool can be simplistic, but it takes true mastery to make something look simple.

The difference between perfect and perfectionism is similar.

The word perfect comes, via Middle English and Old French, from the Latin, perfectus, the past participle of perficere - to finish. The first definition at is, "Lacking nothing essential to the whole."

In that sense, makers always strive to perfect their work.

Most people, however, understand perfect primarily in terms of, "without defect or blemish," and "pure, undiluted, unmixed." Put another way, they think "perfect" is an absolute, synonymous with ideal.

That's why makers more commonly talk not about perfection but a job well done.

Perfectionism is dangerous because absolute perfection is unattainable. No made thing will be perfect for every purpose. Sometimes you need a sledge hammer, and sometimes you need a chisel.

An even greater danger of perfectionism is that you become vulnerable to the opinions of others. Shouldn't a perfectly sad song evoke the same emotion in every listener? Shouldn't the perfect query convince every agent to read your manuscript? But there are people who will say, "meh," after the most stirring music, and you simply can't be a great author without a collection of rejections.

Makers don't worry about that kind of perfection because they recognize the practical danger of never finishing. They focus on arriving at the end of a project with a work "lacking nothing essential to the whole."

Authentic Navajo rugs always have a flaw. I've heard various explanations, all likely apocryphal, but the one I like best is that we are imperfect and we offend the spirits by striving to be something we are not. (It's also a great way to spot machine-made knock-offs.) Whether the reason for the flaw is profound or pragmatic, the idea of expecting and accepting a flaw is liberating. Instead of seeing our work as failing to achieve an ideal, we see it for what it is, improving it until it is complete and lacks nothing essential.

Like the Shakers with simplicity, makers devote their attention to a job well done and perfection follows naturally.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

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