I have spent most of my adult life in pursuit of perfection.
per·fec·tion - /pərˈfekSH(ə)n/ noun the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.
To be free from flaws implied, at least to me, I was whole. Well maybe for me, whole in a wabi-sabi way. But nevertheless, in this quest, I found a personal refuge—a safe, orderly, and familiar space in which to live. This worthy pursuit required that I work toward it with nothing short of conviction and dedication. Which I did. And mine did not waiver.
So much so that Pareto’s Principle became a sort of personal mantra.
The Pareto Principle states that for many outcomes,
roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes.
80% of the effort on the last 20% of a task is a whole lot of time to move the needle from good to perfect. Yet, I did not flinch at the investment. Perfection was totally worth it, and a clear testament to my conviction and discipline.
For me, perfection was the hallmark of an ordered and disciplined mind. Perfection was a way to express the very essence of who I was. It was a sense of mastery; doing the very best with what I had. And it brought me a sense of accomplishment. Seeing the wood stacked up on my front porch, all in order, with the outer log ends even and perpendicular to the deck, just seemed so right. Likely I am the only one who would ever notice, but it was done perfectly, and it made me smile, reminding me of the famous Zen quote:
Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment chop wood, carry water
The details of my ordinary life would stay the same. I alone was left to know I had accomplished the perfect task.
For the next couple of days, I tried to notice when I did a task well and how much additional time it took to move from “good” to as close to perfect as I could get. I did this initially as a way of celebrating my dedication to personal mastery.
Truthfully, it was a lot of time. I was shocked. More time than I had imagined. Clearly Pareto was onto something.
Which led me directly to the question of whether the investment was worth it? Time, I had found out early in my travels, was my most precious commodity. Was I investing my time for my greatest good?
I just could not get beyond the question. And instead of an answer, all I could hear was Rumi:
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
I could only hope that someday, albeit not a distant one, I prayed, I would live into the answer. But for now, I was clearly at the proverbial fork in the road, presented with a mid-course correction. Which way to turn?
I have spent a lot of time feeling lost, yet somehow knowing I was on the right road. I learned the importance of making sense of my current situation before making the choice. But I wasn’t quite sure what I was choosing between—perfection and what? Being perfect or being … flawed, deficient (ouch), a failure, inferior, worthless?? Framed in this way, there was only one choice.
So clearly, I was missing something.
When all else fails, I have learned through the experiences of many life do-overs, to reframe the question. Was I investing in perfection to get me to—what? Getting me to personal mastery is what immediately came to mind. So, the new question became, “How could I reach some kind of ultimate destination of personal mastery using a different approach, one that just might take less time?”
I had backed myself into a corner. The questions were not getting any clearer or easier. How to get to personal mastery via another route?
The more I sat with this simpler form of the question, the more confused I became. Personal mastery was indeed a worthwhile pursuit, and sure it sounded noble and cool, but was that really where I was headed? Was that really what I wanted for my life?
Once again, I found myself lost but clinging to the notion that I was still on the right road.
What I wanted was to find my way to a life filled with meaning and purpose. On my journey to this destination, I had been open to life providing opportunities to help me experience the possibilities my life held. But somehow, without even knowing it, or seemingly without even making a conscious decision, I had detoured to perfection.
I really believe everything that happens, everything I choose to do and experience, when I pay attention, is really an opportunity to learn something new. My very own life has been my best teacher all along. Yet, by focusing on being perfect, I was clearly limiting the amount of time I had to learn anything new. If the goal was to learn to discover the possibilities my life held, the destination, at least for me, could not be perfection.
Mastery, it occurred to me, must mean bringing myself as close as possible to life itself; experiencing the reality of my life and learning from it. Not hiding behind some constructed notion that belonged to someone else. Listening to myself, deciding for myself, contemplating what life is teaching me, and not unconsciously falling victim to the influence of others.
I have a lot to learn, but for now, I am going to apprentice myself to life. I am going to summon the courage to live an imperfect life.