December 29, 2005

The Myth of Perfection

It's time for New Year's resolutions. Of course, nobody is perfect. Do you think we should resolve to be more perfect?

Maybe not. Actually, I think that the myth of "perfection" is one of the most damaging conceits of the modern world. Is perfection desirable? Is it possible to know what it means to be perfect? If everybody tried to be very nearly perfect, would the world be better?

Perhaps in an almost-perfect world, every bathroom would be nearly spotless; every product would be nearly flawless. Every meal would be nearly uniformly tasty; every lawn nearly weedless. Every newspaper would be almost completely true; every student would try to get straight A's. Every medical procedure would be almost risk-free; every computer system almost bug-free.

The image of an almost-completely perfect world seems Orwellian to me. In an almost-perfect world, would every restaurant would be McDonalds? Would every song be sung on-key?

Yet the modern world works so well that the myth of perfection pervades everything. Your Toyota is assemblage of thousands of falliable parts assembled by hundreds of imperfect people around the world. When is the last time it failed to start? Things work so smoothly in the 21st century that we casually accept the existence and desirability of perfection implicitly, unquestioningly. Who would stand up to defend imperfection, especially when it is embodied by your other car - that old junker that is in the auto body shop?

But in the real world, your car will get a ding and your iPod nano will get scratched. The Wikipedia article you read - or that groundbreaking peer-reviewed Science article - will turn out to be untrue. The house you build will fall down; the experiment you try will fail. People will deceive you when they can; and if you lie, most of the time you will not be caught. In the real world, laws will be unfair and legislators corrupt. The supermarket will sometimes run out of milk, and international financial markets will sometimes crash. In the real world, terrorists will slip through airport security; and in the real world, people usually die by mistake.

In the real world things typically turn out badly.

If we can't try to be perfect, should we try at all?

What I'd like to say is that somehow, imperfection is not only ubiquitous and tolerable: imperfection is desirable and even essential.

Imperfection is the elbow room that we need for creative exploration. Imperfection is our best source of diversity, serendipity, and risk. Without imperfection, we have sameness, stasis, and stagnation.

Genius, beauty, courage. Do such miracles arise from the principles of six-sigma perfection, from a carefully followed script? It seems to me that they do not. Greatness rises from a great tolerance of failure, from an ability to be vulnerable, from a willingness to be enormously imperfect.

The wonderful thing about living in America is the cultural respect for pragmatism, imperfection, diversity, and the freedom to be wrong. But in this era of near-perfection, in this era of product liability and malpractice insurance, fact-checked neutral media and focus-group political correctness, antibacterial wipes and Lasik surgery, Ritalin and Cliff notes... are we losing our character?

Maybe in 2006 we should resolve to be more accepting of imperfection. Perhaps we should resolve to take more risks, get messy, make more mistakes, go out on a limb, be different, and be proven wrong.

Posted by David at December 29, 2005 09:19 AM

Perfection is to be strived for, moral perfection doubly so.

Posted by: Bill Brown at December 29, 2005 10:15 AM

In the real world, commenters don't always agree with you. Somehow, that is a wonderful thing. Let's resolve to blog more.

Posted by: David at September 5, 2006 04:51 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?