Abandoning perfection

I have a writing folder on my computer, and I’ve had it for years.

I got my first computer when I was thirteen. It was a reclaimed laptop that had once been the property of Harper Collins, and as a chronic insomniac, it significantly helped defend the little sanity I had going for me.

I’ve had an anxiety disorder since the age of three, and I can’t always tell what’s real and what isn’t. Even now, as an adult, that acute dissociation can turn me into a quivering wreck. Sometimes as a teenager I didn’t sleep for weeks at a time and I couldn’t tell for days at a time whether I was at school, or dreaming about it. I started therapy when I was fourteen that would continue, on and off, for the next twelve years.

In all that time, I did two things. I had ideas for stories, and I wrote them down.

But I didn’t manage to write.

Writing was terrifying. Part of that was because when I knew I was daydreaming, or just plain dreaming about my characters, I knew it wasn’t real. It was rare for me to know that: the comfort of fiction was precious.

But writing was also acutely painful because I suffered from an intense and crippling performance anxiety. Nothing I did, nothing I said, would ever be good enough. If I wasn’t perfect, I was a failure; but nothing I did was ever perfect.

I was a pretty messed-up kid. I don’t need to go into the reasons why; not here, not in this post, anyway.

But it’s taken me a very, very long time to work my head around to something that I now try very hard to communicate to every single child I teach (when I get to teach: not enough, these days).

You will never be perfect.

And nor will I.

Perfection is a powerful concept, but it’s also ultimately useless. It is the breath of a bygone era tingling on the back of your neck, saying, “Make it better. Make it brilliant. Make it best.”

You are already the best. Right now, you are the best you’ve ever been. You are all that’s ever been, your body and your brain. You will always be as perfect as you are now, because you will never be perfect.

The concept of perfection rules us. It forms the underlying structural framework of our cultural narrative, and it’s been there so long that it’s very hard to see it for what it is.

What is perfection? It’s a state of permanence, of completion. If something is perfect, it has achieved exactly what it set out to achieve in a way that is unique, serendipitous, blissful. It’s not just “adequate”, though adequate means something’s achieved its goal. If something is “adequate”, even though it’ll do the job, it’s defined by what it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have that little something that makes it perfect.

Perfection is an act that’s completed, and a human being is never complete. We don’t die at an appointed time, everything in our lives neatly wrapped up and ready to go. We’re never done.

So what’s the point in perfect?

The value in perfection is that it shows us that we don’t have to settle for “adequate”. In theory, we can reach for something greater, work to a higher, imaginary standard. As a concept, perfection seems beneficial. Or, at the very least, it seems like it’s a harmless pursuit.

But saying that someone is a “perfectionist” isn’t just an acceptance that that they will throw their energy into bringing about a vision of something special, specific, spectacular. It’s a way of saying that they’re ruled by something that is impossible to achieve, and that they let their overarching vision absorb them, to the detriment of their experience of what is actually there.

There’s nothing wrong with being driven by imagination, or by pursuing an idea in order to bring it to life. That’s not what I mean. Every writer, artist, composer, sculptor, scientist, inventor, technological innovator, they were all driven by the idea of something that didn’t yet exist, that sparkled in the theatre of their minds until they brought it into the material world. Electricity, the power of flight, the Pastoral Symphony, Hamlet, they all started as something intangible, something that their creators had to believe in and bring to life.

I have a writing folder on my computer. It has, and I’ve counted, over a thousand open documents that are unfinished. (I have over fifty started draft posts on this blog, saved in my CMS, and they’re also unfinished.)

They are what they are. They’re documents with ideas. But these days I try very hard not to think of them as “unfinished stories”. They’ll be finished when I’m ready to finish them. They’re fine for what they are, right now, today. And I’m fine, too.

I don’t believe in perfection. I also don’t believe in “genius”. I don’t believe that there’s some higher level of human perception and cognition that designates or defines particular people, elevating them to some exalted plane of existence. Yes, obviously some people are phenomenally talented, or extremely intelligent, or possess remarkable gifts for particular areas of human knowledge. But suspending them from the normal rules of criticism and commentary by designating them as “geniuses” is part of a cultural backdrop that’s defined by the idea of perfection.

A work of genius is perfect. It’s untouchable, cannot be replicated by “ordinary people”. But I don’t think anybody’s ordinary. With the right education and the right circumstances, everyone has the possibility to be extraordinary. The idea of “genius” is a way of suspending responsibility, using the language of the divine to elevate it to a level that nobody else can hope to grasp, unless they’re also blessed with the magical and mythical and indefinable gift of “genius”.

This is how the concept of perfection can easily tip over into something damaging.

The quest for perfection is, by definition, driven by lack, by a desire for something more than adequate. It buys into a cultural narrative of working towards a “completed” whole. So I don’t have “unfinished” stories, because why should I expect that they’ll all become stories?

I have notes. I have ideas. And that’s what they are.

Western society, for all that it’s becoming more secular, is still built on a foundation that can be traced all the way back to the Judaeo-Christian book of Genesis. (Bear in mind that people have been accepting the book of Genesis far longer than Christianity’s been around, too.)

Genesis says that everything was perfect, once. Then two people dun fucked up and now we need to jump through some hoops before we’re considered perfect again.

The idea that we’re alienated from perfection, and that we’re all working towards a preconceived notion of what’s perfect, permeates our culture.

But I think it’s backwards to place those expectations on people. It means that we don’t see things for what they are.

It means that we don’t see people for what they are.

I’ve picked up this draft post a good year and a half after I started writing it because I realised I still had something to say. Has it accumulated layers of meaning?

Maybe. I’m certainly a lot braver talking about my history of mental illness than I was a year ago. But that doesn’t make me now better than I was then. It’s just different.

There is no essential category of “perfection”. You’re not unbaked dough, slowly reaching the point of perfect pizza crust. There’s no predetermined way of defining when you’ve achieved the state of being “done”, no underlying state of completion which, through a lack of something indefinable, you have not reached.

You are, right now, all you will ever be. Tomorrow you will be all you’ll ever be. Yesterday you were everything you’ve ever been, and that is good.

So I have this to say to you, and to my younger self: you know exactly who you are, because you are that right now. And you don’t need to be anything more, unless you want to be.

If you want to be, then you make the choices and the changes that make you who you are and what you will be. You don’t need to live up to an unattainable standard of completeness.

This might sound overwhelming, but honestly, I find it empowering. It reminds me that my choices are important and valuable. It reminds me that my future is in my hands.

Nobody should be complacent, because nobody’s perfect. But we’re all in the process of making ourselves who we are, and that process is never complete.

Perfection is an illusion, and it’s one that I’m trying, every day, to leave behind.

I have a writing folder on my computer, and you know what I do in it?

I write. Just like I’ve picked up this blog and gone “fuck it, I’m posting it, because something posted is better than something beautifully-crafted but unseen”.

So I write, and reclaim the part of me that found writing easy, because it was a haven from worrying about which parts of my life were real and which I’d dreamed.

I’m writing.

And that’s enough for now.


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