Oftentimes, we like to say that “perfect is overrated” or “there’s no such thing as perfect.” Don’t make it perfect; just get it done. But here’s the truth: Perfect is possible.
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Perfect is possible
The other day, I asked my son, “What’s wrong with you?”
He looked surprised. “Nothing,” he said.
“Is there anything wrong with you?” I asked with curiosity.
Again, he replied, “Nope.”
“So you’re perfect?” I said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, yeah. I guess I’m pretty perfect.”
I laughed and said, “That’s right, buddy. You’re perfect.”
Wow. He’s six years old. Can you imagine what it must be like to think there is nothing wrong with you? I can’t. You ask me what’s wrong with me, and I have a long list of things I want to improve.
But what if Aiden is right? What if there is nothing wrong with you?
Perfect is possible.
Some of us have grown up thinking “perfect” meant a certain thing—pristine, flawless, whatever. We end up fixated on getting things “right” because we believe that we can find identity and approval from the label.
But life doesn’t work that way. Neither does art.
What perfect really means
The word “perfect” as an adjective used to mean complete, whole, not lacking anything. Achieving perfection meant that something was being true to its nature. It comes from a Middle English word “parfit,” which is a variation of an older French word meaning “finished, complete, ready.” It also has a connection to the Latin word “perfectus,” which means “completed, excellent, accomplished.” As a verb, the early version of the word “parfiten” meant “to bring to full development.”
Achieving perfection means that something is true to its nature.
So “perfect” means to be complete. Not lacking anything.
Is something imperfect because it is not symmetrical?
Is a tree perfect?
What about a sunset?
What about your children playing in the backyard, running and laughing in the rain, stomping in puddles, filled with joy and immersed in the moment?
Are they lacking anything?
I sure hope not.
A tree is not perfect because its branches are exactly straight. A sunset is not perfect because it has the same beautiful hues every evening. A child playing is not perfect because she is following the rules or doing what is expected of her. That’s what it means to be predictable, not perfect.
No, all of these are examples of perfection because they are complete, not lacking anything.
Something does not have to be pristine for it to be perfect. It doesn’t have to have nice rounded corners and perfect edges and total resolution.
So when you make something, don’t strive to make it perfect. Realize that it already is perfect. It just has to be what it is. And that realization will make your work better. I promise.
Often, writers will send me a piece of writing, asking, “Is this any good?”
I never know how to answer that. It’s the wrong question, in fact.
Who am I to tell if something is good or bad?
A better question than perfection
The world is notorious for getting these things wrong over and over. We tend to miss the geniuses in our midst until they are gone—or even sometimes murdered for their radical views.
How do I know if that thing you’re writing is any good?
And why does this matter?
A better question is this: Is this true? Is this what it’s supposed to be?
Gordon Mackenzie spent his career at Hallmark. He saw the company grow from a scrappy band of misfit artists into a corporate giant. In Orbiting the Giant Hairball he details how he retained a sense of creativity in an environment that was ever increasing in complexity and bureaucracy—that is, a hairball.
His solution was to orbit. To be in the system but not of it.
Gordon’s last job was as the “creative paradox”, a title he chose for himself when his bosses told him he basically had tenure and could do no wrong. His role was to sit in an office all day long and tell people if their ideas were any good.
He did this for years, seeing fellow artists and illustrators at Hallmark, answering their questions about their ideas. They needed to know if the art they were pursuing was good enough to keep going.
Years later, Gordon confessed publicly to telling everyone he saw that their ideas were good. He didn’t tell a single person that they had a bad idea. When someone criticized him about this, he explained that he did this for two reasons:
- Nobody knew that he was telling everyone their ideas were good, so each person felt like the encouragement was both special and personal, and it was.
- Gordon understood that a bad idea, regardless of how many people encourage you, will ultimately fail, because it is a bad idea. But a good idea, without the proper encouragement, could be abandoned before it was truly given a chance to succeed.
Considering the costs on both sides, Gordon figured it was better to risk encouraging a few bad ideas than it was to quash a potentially great idea simply because he didn’t understand it.
And again, Gordon wondered, “Who are we to know if an idea is good or bad?”
Your art is already perfect
I want to say the same thing about your writing. About your art. About this business idea you have. It’s good. It’s perfect. There’s nothing wrong with it. Be true to it. Chase it. Make it, dance with it, create it.
Whatever you do, don’t abandon it because you think it might not be good enough or someone may not like it. Who are they to judge your idea? Who, moreover, are you?
There is only one question you should ask of your art: Is this complete?
If it’s not lacking anything, then it’s perfect.
Again, that doesn’t mean pristine. It means complete, and the way that you do that is by deciding who this work is for and what you want to do with it.
Then, you make that art, write that book, record that song. You do it well and unapologetically without concerns about achieving a certain standard of excellence, because everyone has a different standard.
But what about success? That’s another conversation entirely and, frankly, none of your business. Maybe it’ll succeed. Maybe it won’t. Success has always been a bad indicator of the quality of a piece of work, anyway.
Your job right now is not to figure out any of that—whether it’s good or bad or if any of this will work. Make the art. Do your dance.
Because the only wrong way to do it is to not do it. To abort the idea before it even has a chance of living.
Because who knows? It just might be perfect.
Parker Palmer, a Quaker teacher and activist, writes in one of his books that it is “better to be whole than it is to be good.” So it is with your art. Don’t focus on creating something pristine. Focus on creating something perfect—that is, something that is whole, not lacking anything.
It is better to be whole than it is to be good.
This is your art, and this is your life. And there is nothing wrong with it (or you). Once you understand that, you are free to create whatever you’d like.
And it will be perfect, precisely because you are not trying to make it flawless.