The Tyranny of Perfection

This blog has been spotty so far, to say the least, and that is mostly because I feel as though what I post here needs to be finished, polished, well-reasoned, and complete In a word: Perfect. That’s ironic because it defeats the purpose I had in mind. My intention was for this space to be a venue to try new ideas, to throw up musings and general findings, rant on about readings and ponder some of the issues in the pursuit of Intentional Practice. Well, I’ve decided to break that cycle with this post. Forgive me if it’s a little raw. That’s the point.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

The Tyranny of Perfection

Kafka’s will stipulated that all of his manuscripts were to be destroyed upon his death. Somebody ignored him to our benefit. Schubert was more successful. He burned a bonfire’s worth of manuscripts of his music that will be forever lost. The notion that perfection cracks its social whip against our naked back is not a new realization, but its influence is more pervasive and insidious than either Kafka or Schubert could have imagined.

False perfection surrounds us. From the air-brushed, photoshopped models devoid of pores or that little crease of flesh at the armpit, to the perfection of studio recordings with every clam removed, all vocals scrubbed and pulled up to pitch, all rhythms corralled into line. We have come to hold these and other examples of aesthetic beauty in high esteem despite the fact that they are fantasy and in some cases entirely impossible for mortals. Without pores you would die.

Is this a bad thing? In some cases, perhaps not. If one strives for perfection and advances slowly towards that Platonic ideal, isn’t this a good thing, a worthy task? Unequivocally yes! But the side-effect of all this perfection is that we all have come to possess high standards, for ourselves and others and there lies they tyranny. We end up believing that if we cannot produce a masterwork or products at an extremely high level, then many of us don’t even bother. We don’t play music or practice an instrument because “we just don’t have talent for it,” as though that should be the reason to do so. We are too afraid of sounding or looking less-than-perfect, or worse–and here is the true reason–of being less than perfect. This fear quashes any genuine attempt at a discipline which might teach us so much about our self and others, and about the way the messy, perfectly imperfect world works.

This is perhaps the biggest hurdle many adults face in attempting either a new skill or maintaining/reviving skills already acquired, whatever their level. A young child hasn’t yet received the mental baggage of perfection and judgment, and while a child might be shy or a little fearful, it’s not the full-blown pathological fear than many of us are burdened with.

There is a legend of a monk who is preparing the grounds for a visit from Buddha. He has worked hard. The cherry trees were in full pink bloom, flowers were pushing up through the warm earth. The monk raked up all the dead leaves, sheared the grass, pruned the bushes and clipped flowers that had bloomed and died. When he finished he stopped to view his work. It was perfect. And wrong. He thought for a moment, then walked to the cherry tree and gave it a vigorous shake. Blossoms rained down in a pink mess of scattered blossoms. The monk stepped back and looked again. Now it looked right.

It is flaws and imperfections that make this life worth living. Think of a beloved character with her fatal flaw, or Marilyn Monroe without her birthmark or suicide.

We should strive to cultivate perfections, certainly, and to strive for the ideal, but the trick is not to be enslaved by it, or allow it to deny our own lovely and necessary imperfections. The ability to embrace one’s flaws is a lifelong quest because as we age, imperfections seem to increase, either because of new “imperfections” like wrinkles or sagging flesh show up, or the fact that as we become more self-aware, our inherent flaws are easier to perceive. The more we know, the less perfect the world may seem.

Perfection is a slippery eel of a topic that wriggles and slithers in your grasp. Hold it too loosely and it will twitch its way out of your palm and slither back to its dark wet place under its boulder. Hold it too tightly and it is crushed dead and useless. Perfection changes based on our own expertise, our own opinions. Listen to Manny Laureano and Dave Bamonte playan orchestral trumpet excerpt and you may marvel at what sounds like perfection. Personally, I love the sound and love the Monette trumpets. To other orchestral Masters who listen deeply from fundamental tone to the highest overtone, the sound of these trumpets is not beautiful but wrong because the overtones do not sound as expected. Perfection is perception and perception not only changes, it’s relative.

As a pimply fourteen year old, the height of musical perfection for me was Journey’s Escape, which I would listen to for months as I fell asleep, the vinyl crackle delivering Steve Perry and company’s version of life in the big city to my rural Alaskan ears. Over 30 years later, my idea of musical perfection lies in the live music performed by musicians like jazz guitar master Bobby Broom (for 20 years Sonny Rollins’s first-call guitarist), along with Dennis Carroll on bass and Dana Hall or Kobe Watkins on drums. They play every Wednesday nearby for free! It’s a different sort of musical perfection. It contains flaws, and the flaws are beautiful. The music is risk and effort and deep listening, musical communication and a bold if not aggressive leap into the unknown, like explorers of a new age.

The other piece of tyranny in perfection, flaws or no, is that it’s not something that springs easily into being, fully formed, straight from Zeus’s head. it is a layering, always a long process, like the stratification of stone silted down over countless millenia, preserving the petrified bones of our experience in its fossil record; or like a good baklava, its strata of fine phyllo dough infused with honey and nuts, layered with care and attention until a thing of sweet succulence is created. It takes time. Ten years or ten thousand hours to Mastery.

But then, many of us are either uninterested in total mastery or have more than one all-consuming interest. We want or need only improvement and therein lies the irony. To believe that the type of practice that leads to simple improvement and that which leads to ultimate Mastery are different is a mistake. They are, or can be, one and the same method regardless of discipline. The frequency, timing, and perseverance with which skills are practiced is what makes all the difference.

Tyranny doesn’t have to be vigorously in-your-face either. Tyranny can walk on little cat feet, creeping up until its claws are sunk deep in the jugular of your belief in yourself. Our culture is so focused on the product and misguided ideas about perfection that we cannot often hear those at the height of their creative arc who tell us, “It is the journey that is important. I am no better than anyone else. What you see is the result of long, hard work.” It’s easier for us to believe that it is some naturally inborn “gift” because that gives us an excuse, one that we use to stave off the regret of not trying, one that helps to preserve the ego. It is the day-to-day work that is important, the grain of sand added to the pile, the drop of water that eventually sculpts the stone.


1. What is perfection to you? Are there things you haven’t explored for fear of not being good enough? Where does that fear arise? What would be the true consequence if you did this thing? If you will die or cause injury to yourself or others, not doing it is a good idea. Short of that, what are you waiting for? Try to live with the awareness of how your personal standards of perfection are constricting and/or limiting. If you sense some of this in yourself, how will you work to break that hold?

2. Listen, look, or watch something that you once believed to be the pinnacle of perfection when you were younger. Honor that younger self’s idea of perfection, but be aware of how your awareness has grown over time. Is there anything that you hold as perfect now that might break down when you reexamine it later in this way?

3. Find something you hold beautiful, or something you love, and look for its flaws, not so that your love is diminished, but so that your love can encompass and embrace the flaws, too.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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