“Practice makes perfect”. A phrase most of us have heard, and probably often over our lifetime. But I heard that slogan challenged recently.
My wife told me of an interview she had heard with a well respected actress, who made the comment “practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes experienced”.
When I heard that, I thought, what a great comment. You see, like many people, I am afflicted with a tendency towards perfectionism, a lofty goal that is in fact unattainable. I know that, and have worked towards gaining a balanced perspective all my life. But still that tendency persists.
Perfectionism is a waste of time – literally. If you want to do something well, you might spend, let’s say, 1 hour on the task. If you want to do it extremely well, you might find you spend 2 hours or more on that same task. Now, aim for perfect – and you run out of time. Hours later, you settle for something less than perfect but close enough to be able to tick the box and move on (if you can).
And here’s the thing – when people aim for perfection, they start to see problems where there are none. Painters start to see errors in their painting and go over and over parts they are not happy with (and risk making it worse in the end). Katherine Hepburn, a renowned actress, used to hate watching herself on the silver screen, because she felt she could have done so much better. Housewives who strive for a spotless house can find themselves cleaning and recleaning sections that are already spotless.
You can see how perfectionism tends towards neurotic behaviour, and that’s because too much is riding on the outcome. If our work isn’t perfect, then just maybe we’re no good either. Even when a job is close to being well done, at best we feel a fleeting euphoria and at worst we just feel a sense of relief. I say fleeting because our next task has to prove all over again that we’re okay – and in fact it never will prove any such thing because we just don’t believe it anyway.
Now in a curious way society benefits from this relentless pursuit. We see breathtaking performances, amazing athletic feats, and breakthroughs in science from those who push closer and closer to finding elusive answers. Freud, interestingly enough, spoke of how many great things are achieved by people who are driven by neuroses. So too with perfectionism.
But do you really want to benefit mankind and live in abject misery, because nothing is ever good enough? If you’re like me, you’d rather get off the merry go round. Life is so much more enjoyable when you do.
Which brings me back to the phrase “Practice makes experienced”. It’s not as if this one phrase will revolutionise the world, but it is not only helpful, but really accurate too. We all want to do better – that’s a good thing. The more experienced we are in something the better we perform it, right? Usually anyway. That means there’s a much more attainable goal. Am I better at this thing than I was before? Yes? Then give myself a big pat on the back. Do I want to improve? Sure, let’s go for it.
What a relief it is to be able to think that way. Immediately the pressure if off. I can live with myself. I can be happy with where I am at, even though I want to get better.
In an ideal world this would create a restless contentment. I like that phrase – restless contentment. If we’re too content, life can become bland (though some of you might disagree with that). If we’re restless then we can never settle. To be in a state of restless contentment, we’re enjoying who we are, but looking forward to more.
I did say, in an ideal world. I still am routinely more restless than content, but I have learned to celebrate my successes, and I have learned to let go of the goal of perfection. Now all I want is “pretty damn good”!