Perfection and Its Cage

We often aim for a particular career because we have been deeply impressed by the achievements of the most skilful practitioners in the field. We express our aspirations by admiring the beautiful buildings of the designer tasked with composing the city’s new airport or by watching the dauntless trades of the wealthiest Wall Street fund director or reading the analysis of the acclaimed literary novelist. 

What we do is form our career plans on the basis on perfection. Then, motivated by the masters, we take our first steps and immediately this is where our troubles begin. What we have succeeded to create, or make in our first few months of trading, writing in an early short story is considerably and absurdly, below the standard that first sparked our appetites. We who are so conscious of perfection end up the least able to tolerate commonplaceness – which in this case appears to be our own. We become stuck in an uncomfortable paradox: our aspirations have been kindled by greatness, but everything we acknowledge of ourselves points to innate ineptitude. We have fallen into what we can term the perfectionist trap, defined as a powerful attraction to perfection shorn of any mature of sufficient understanding of what is required to attain it. It is not primarily our fault though. 

Without in anyway exposing this, or still perhaps being aware of it, our media edits out billions of unremarkable lives and years of frustration, rejection and disappointment even in those who do achieve. The media now sell us an idea rather than a journey. What media does is presents us with the final product rather than the production process of greatness or perfection. From cover to cover we are served up a daily curated assortment of peak career highlights, which then paint a picture for us baseline achieves that success is just about hard work rather than it being a unique combination of characteristics that make these stars statically Übermenschlich. A norm and baseline of achievement are how we frame these superhumans. It starts to appear to us as though ‘everyone’ is successful because all those who we happen to hear about our successes – and we have thus forgotten to imagine the rivers of tears, despair, dread and anxiety surrounding their journey. Our perspective is imbalanced because we know our own struggles so well from the inside and yet are exposed to seemingly pain-free narratives of achievement on the outside. We cannot forgive ourselves the horrors of our early drafts – largely because we have not seen the initial sketches and drafts of those who we admire, those who gave us that initial burst of desire to become. 

We need a saner map of how many challenges lie behind everything we would wish to follow. We should not look, for example, at the classics of art in a gallery. We should go to the studio and there see the agony, wrecked early drafts and watermarks on the canvas where the artist broke down and cried. We should focus on how long it took the architect before they received their first proper commission, we should pull out the early stories of the writer who wins awards and study more intimately how many defeats the entrepreneur had to endure. We need to recognise the legitimate and necessary role of failure, allow ourselves to do things quite imperfect for a very long time – as a price we cannot avoid paying for an opportunity one day, perhaps in many decades, to do something that is crafted by our hands and minds that will be considered a spontaneous success

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