Perfectionism in psychology, is a personality trait. But let's keep that aside for a minute. On a fundamental level, what does the word perfect mean?
The root of the word perfection comes from the Latin perficio, which means “to finish”, or “to bring to an end”.
So when you say something is perfect, it means that the work is finished, implying that this is the limit. No matter how hard you try, You cannot possibly do better, because if you could, then it isn’t perfect.
And in the real world, perfect doesn’t exist. It’s an abstraction; an idea. Let’s look at an example that you may remember from high school.
This here, is a line:
In geometry, a line is an example of a 1-dimensional object - something which has no width or depth, only length. Similarly, this is a 2-dimensional object called a plane:
But these are ideas - concepts, that allow you to write equations and implement them in practical applications. But there exists no such thing like a perfectly 2 dimensional object or a 1 dimensional object in the real world. However thin you cut something even with the most cutting-edge technologies, you still wouldn’t be able to produce a real plane - a perfectly 2-dimensional object. Even if you managed to make a sheet with just a single layer of atoms, that is still going to to be 3 dimensional, isn’t it?
Didn’t stop people from trying though. For instance The Avogadro project, in which scientists created the world’s roundest object.
But it is still not a perfect sphere1.
As you continue to improve, things get exponentially hard. Not linearly hard, exponentially hard. This is actually a natural law of the universe. When I say law, I don’t mean some mystical woo-woo, law of attraction bullshit or anything - I mean that its actually law of physics. It’s just like you cannot really reach the speed limit of light. Getting to 10%, even 50% of the speed of light might be doable, but as you continue making progress, as you continue to accelerate, even the smallest of improvement requires a exponentially lot more energy. You’re never actually going to get there.
Like the ever-eluding horizon.
You can move towards the horizon, but you can’t really reach the horizon. You can even take a picture of the horizon. Go to a beach, take a snap with your smartphone and perhaps frame it, and point it out to people saying, “hey, look - there’s the horizon!” You can move towards it, sure, but can you actually get there? No. It’s always elusive, it’s right there, but never within your grasp.
And your own body, your society, your relationships, indeed your very world and anything that happens within it are subject to this law. They operate within this framework. That’s why getting to 80% excellence in 3 things is better than trying to achieve 90% excellence in just 1 thing - not only because its actually easier, but also because it’s more useful that way.
So why use this word perfect? Because it’s a concept imagined by humans to give us a goal. So that way, when we do something or build something, it gives us a direction. It helps us analyze if we are moving in the right direction or the wrong direction, and measure our progress. Be it creating useful objects or building relationships, the notion is that we can achieve a level of excellence that’s useful to ourselves and to other people. And that’s a good thing, because it inspires us to do our best, and be our best.
Now many people like to say “Well, nobody’s 100% perfect”. That seems a bit absurd - a misunderstanding of this concept. Either you are perfect, or you’re not - those are the only 2 possible states. There is no in-between. To say that “Nobody’s 100% perfect” is like saying “It’s not 100% infinite”. Which is silly, because it seems to imply that there is something such as 90% infinite, or 1% infinite. It’s meaningless. So the right phrasing should just be “Nobody’s perfect”.
And of-course nobody is! Makes sense why similar other phrases exist. Out-of-this-world. Or heavenly. Precisely because it cannot exist in the real world! I’m not disputing the semantics - of-course people use these phrases in everyday conversations, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s about the idea itself, and the nature of these concepts.
In philosophy when we ponder over anything in terms of Absolutes, interesting contentions occur, such as this one:
The paradox of perfection
The idea is, if something is perfect, then it cannot improve further - so is it really perfect? In everyday affairs, true perfection would imply the possibility of progress - to grow, wouldn’t it?
In engineering, intentionally introducing imperfections (impurities, to be more precise), is necessary in-order to make semiconductors and plenty of other technologies work. And if you stretch even further back in time, irregularities are the very reason why we exist today - if the universe were perfectly homogenous and uniform, it wouldn’t have allowed for the formation of galaxies, stars and planets at all!
The greatest perfection is imperfect.
So is perfectionism overrated? As a philosophical idea, it’s neither overrated nor underrated. It’s simply an abstraction invented by humans because its useful to visualize the highest possible standards that we could achieve - at least in theory - in anything that we do.
Of-course, in real life, many people consciously or subconsciously operate under the assumption that not only is perfectionism real, but it’s attainable. That they can actually get there. So while its useful as a concept, as a personality trait, not only is it overrated, but problematic too.
For example, many folks want to start a blog, but they never really publish anything. Why? Because they are just trying to write the perfect blog post. They spend months, years trying to write, edit and polish their article over and over, but they never publish it. They don’t realize that at some point you have to stop.
So in that sense, it can turn out to be a roadblock. It’s fine to chase perfectionism, but they should be stopping at pragmatism. Arrive at a good standard of excellence, and move on to other things.
Do you have something that you’ve always wanted to manifest in the world but haven’t yet, because you’re obsessed with an ideal?
I’d like to hear about it!
Meanwhile, do watch this video by Veritasium on the world’s roundest object!
Though this is among the roundest man-made objects in the world, if you scaled the sphere to the size of Earth, it would have a high point of 2.4 metres above “sea level”. That’s shockingly precise! But probably about the best we can do. ↩︎