Perfection is an Ideal Always Beyond Achievement.
My guest again this Sunday is my son, Greg Hohn, and as in his last post, the reader will find a biographical note at the end of the article. Reading through his piece about the pursuit of perfection, I am reminded of the saying about golf, “It Ain’t a game of perfect.” A poorly stuck shot skitters along the edge of the fairway, begins to slice back toward the green, hits a sprinkler head, vaults over a trap and rolls to a stop four feet away from the pin. Jamming his club back in his back, the man who stuck it says, “Damn, I wanted get that one in the air.” We can always find a reason to be unhappy with whatever we do. Contentment is illusive, and we fear it often because we think that complacency will overtake us and we wil not to do better—ever.
People throw away what they could have by insisting on perfection, which they cannot have, and looking for it where they will never find it. –Edith Schaeffer
The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing. –Eugene Delacroix
The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. –Anna Quindlen
For a theoretically good thing, perfection sure does cause a lot of trouble. Or maybe perfection’s theoretical nature is itself the problem. Perfection doesn’t exist except as a concept. As it is normally considered, it is a goal that can never be reached.
This trouble with perfection manifests itself in two ways that I see. First, some people constantly measure their progress toward perfection and, in so doing, impede their progress. It’s almost like their psyches have the equivalent of the kid in the back seat of the car who keeps asking, “Are we there yet?”
Second, some folks see the impossibility of reaching perfection and don’t even bother heading in its general direction, preferring to stay locked in stasis.
When I teach beginning improv, students are often really hung up about excelling. It’s good to want to do well but when you’re a student, just doing is enough.
For example, I had one student recently who had great difficulty embracing simple instructions like “say yes” and “avoid conflict.” This is fairly common, actually. The student resisted, apparently convinced that it was impossible to do a good improv scene in this Pollyannaish world of agreement. He wanted to do a good scene, not an exercise for novices.
Yet once he finally focused on agreement and avoided conflict, he did a scene that was wonderful and he seemed somewhat stunned, almost as if he’d jumped off a cliff and found he could fly rather than merely plummeting. His partner seemed stunned too and their scene, which was essentially a niceness contest, was terrific until one of them decided this couldn’t possibly last and introduced conflict, which promptly caused the scene to crash and burn.
Trust the Goodness in What Is
The conflict was really just a symptom of a desire to do better. Good wasn’t enough for these players or they didn’t trust the goodness of what they were doing and when they tried to make it better, they ran into difficulty.
This tendency to seek perfection also reveals itself when I’m teaching presentation skills in FIZ courses and workshops. A participant will be playing a game or doing an exercise and doing well until she starts suspecting she is not doing well enough according to some mysterious standard. Although the standard is internal, the student has generally constructed it of external components, things that she believes others believe, and she believes others hold her to this standard.
Then the student bails out of whatever she is doing, afraid she is failing and not doing it perfectly. And almost without fail those watching are disappointed—not with what the student was doing but that she stopped doing it! Her lack of perfection was good enough for them but not for herself.
One of my all-time favorite Transactors, a wonderful man, actor, and improviser, left the company because he couldn’t be satisfied with what he was doing. No matter how much genuine praise he received from audiences, fellow improvisers, and me, the director, he still remained convinced that he wasn’t very good. He couldn’t accept his imperfection and so the company and the world lost a fine improviser.
I’ve known so many people stuck because they can’t think of a perfect way out of a situation. It might be a bad job or relationship or maybe they want to write a novel or play piano. There are so many paths they could take but they don’t take the first step down any path because none is flawless.
Coping with Frustration
Or sometimes people get discouraged because, once they start in a direction, the going or their performance isn’t perfect and good isn’t good enough for them. Progress is incremental and failure often precedes a greater success. No one wants to do poorly and it can be frustrating but that’s the price for improvement and progress.
I can certainly understand frustration but I try not to let my frustration focus on imperfection. I try to accept it.
For example, I love to go downhill skiing, even though my first attempt was at age 43. I fell. I fall. I take a break after some good runs. Then I get back on the slope and I fall some more. But I see the progress and I can even make it down double-black-diamond slopes without wiping out now. I don’t care what others think of my falling, as long as I stay out of their way, because they don’t care about it. I want to get better at skiing but I know I’ll never be very good compared to others. I merely hope to be good enough for myself.
On another personal note, I’ve had crappy jobs and I’ve had a wonderful job—what I do now. Even though I honestly cannot imagine anything I like better than the mixture of teaching, performing, and directing I do, there are still bad days. There are times when I don’t want to go teach a class or do a show or when these things don’t go well. My career is good enough for me. It took an awful lot of struggle and wrong turns—imperfection—to get to this content place.
If there is perfection in this world, I believe it is akin to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which essentially means beauty in imperfection. This perfection is flawed but perfect because of its flaws, not in spite of them. This perfection is organic and comes from within rather than without. It is the perfection we can see in nature.
We can see it elsewhere too. For example, when Miles Davis played, his notes sometimes slid and cracked and yet these flaws made his playing have a poignant sensitivity. Thelonious Monk played wonderful music that sometimes had the “wrong” notes or rhythms. Louis Armstrong, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan are great singers who are from operatically perfect. These artists’ unique personalities show through their imperfections.
Then there’s the painter, Fra Lippo Lippi, immortalized in the eponymous poem by Robert Browning. His paintings were considered “too perfect” and to lack human feeling and thus were not celebrated as much as those by less perfectionistic artists. It is from this poem that we get, perhaps, the best (the most perfect?) usage of the concept of perfection, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
It is worth noting that some cultures consider it an affront to the divine to strive for perfection and so, even in their finest work, they build a flaw as an act of humility and reverence.
In Transactors Improv we understand that we will not do a perfect show. Someone will get a character’s name wrong or commit some technical glitch. There are always missed opportunities. But if we try to do our best, focus on our technique and working together, and play, we can create wonderful things that are perfect in their own right.
At our best, we are focusing on what we are doing, not on achieving an ambiguous external standard. Sometimes our mistakes and shortcomings are what lend authenticity and dynamism to what we’re doing. And so, in this imperfect world, perhaps we create perfection rather than achieving it.
Greg Hohn is an improvisational theater specialist. In 1989 he joined Transactors (http://transactors.org), the south’s oldest improv company, and was been the Chapel Hill-based theater’s director, 1996-2011. In addition to performing and teaching improvisation, performs in film, television, radio, scripted theater, and industrial media and also sings with a big band.
Greg has developed the FIZ Applied Improv (http://thefiz.biz) curriculum and brought it to academic, corporate, and governmental settings across the United States and occasionally outside it. He has been an award-winning faculty member in the University of North Carolina’s MBA program since 2000 and joined Duke University’s drama department in 2008.
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