The perfect is the enemy of the good. – Voltaire
I was re-introduced to this phrase, paraphrased from a quote of Voltaire, near the end of 2020. In a discussion on social media about process-oriented ways to approach exercise, I was exploring the idea that, while I reject “resolutions,” I would like to take steps to improve my fitness. (Like so many folks, I’ve been working from home this year without all the passive exercise — climbing stairs, walking up hill to my car after teaching — that I had access to pre-pandemic.) I realized that perfectionism has played a role in my avoidance of exercise programs, and I’ve been pondering “the enemy of the good” ever since, observing how perfectionism pervades our culture, and invades my life and work.
Aiming for perfection often means that we struggle to achieve something always out of reach, and in the process, pass by or throw away many wonderful ideas, artistic products, plans, jobs, and even relationships, because they aren’t “perfect.”
Sometimes we don’t accept things that truly are “good” because we are always on the quest for the “perfect.”
And importantly, we cause ourselves (and others) physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual pain in the process.
Dare to be wrong
The idea of harmful perfectionism isn’t new to me, and it has been written about from many perspectives by insightful scholars, teachers, and authors. In my work as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I often find myself coaching musicians to be open to something imperfect — a note out of tune, a string shift that was slower than hoped for, a vocal tone that was not the dreamed-for ideal — in order to actualize something beautiful and healthy. The AT principle of “end-gaining,” or being so goal-oriented in our thinking that we’re willing to mis-use our bodies and minds to achieve that “perfect end,” explains how this works: we often prevent our desired goal from coming into being by the strain and effort we use to try to get there.
Paradoxically, in order to get out of that cycle of harmful habit, we have to interrupt the desire to achieve our goal at its root — the very thought of that goal — to then allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities of the moment. We have to dare to be wrong! Musicians I work with often find that, by “saying no to” or letting go of that driving, animating goal, they discover a coordination in their bodies and minds that allows not only a good sound, but a great one — a sound that is new and beautiful in unfamiliar and wonderful ways.
Your indivisible, whole self
This framework doesn’t just apply to music, though. As I’ve been reading about and pondering perfectionism, I see it almost everywhere. I grew up in white American culture, greatly influenced by the ideals of western European thought in my education and in the culture at large. One of the ways that western culture has tried to achieve perfection has been to separate the mind, body, and spirit, so that each can be addressed independently: perfection of the body through exercise (or through potentially harmful diet culture, body-image, and fashion…corsets, anyone?), perfection of the mind through academic education that prioritizes intellectualism over holistic, socio-emotional learning, and perfection of the spirit through religious dogma (and today, the self-help industry).
But the more I teach this work — the embodied mindfulness that is at the very core of the Alexander Technique process — the more I recognize that we can’t address any “part” of ourselves without changing all of ourselves. The body, mind, and spirit are an indivisible unity, even though we may try to focus on one to the exclusion of the others. The work I am most interested in is the work that brings us home to ourselves, to an acceptance of who we are, that allows us to live our lives with ease — ease of body, ease of mind, and ease of spirit. This is a work that opens us up to the possibility of acceptance and transformation in personal, communal, and global spheres.
Direction over perfection
One of the fundamental components of the AT embodied mindfulness process I teach is called “direction.” It relates to thinking constructively in activity, choosing our self-coordination of body, thought, and intention, moment-by-moment. In a discussion about perfectionism with my IU Jacobs School of Music class a few years ago, one of the wise students coined the phrase, “Direction over perfection.” Process and constructive, whole-self choice bring us more ease (and usually better music) than unrealistic outcomes.
. . .
One reason I teach this work is because I also need regular reminders that possibility is more caring, more satisfying, and more connecting than perfection. Goodness knows that the ways we’ve been working so far in our individual and communal lives may not have taken us where we want to go. End-gaining and perfectionism could be keeping us from getting there, or from even starting. Perhaps it’s time to try something new, something we’ve never done before.
To improvise on Voltaire, then: Perfection is the enemy of possibility.
. . .
What might be possible for you? I’d love to have a conversation with you about the areas you care about, and some openings into possibility through the whole-self learning of voice or Alexander Technique study.