Being Perfect

being perfect

Sacha recommended Being Perfect (Amazon). It is a charming, insightful book. I’ve never been very perfect, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. It’s a reminder to look at our motivations, and to dance our own beat.

I love it. Probably way too many quotes below – which I’ve added the emphasis to. Go and read it!

 

So if this sounds in any way familiar to you, if you have been trying to be perfect, too, then perhaps today is the day to put down that backpack before you develop permanent curvature of the spirit. Trying to be perfect may be inevitable for people who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But at one level it’s too hard, and at another it’s too cheap and easy. Because all it really requires of you, mainly, is to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be and to assume the masks necessary to be the best at whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires. Those requirements shape-shift, sure, but when you’re clever you can read them and come up with the imitation necessary.

But nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations. What is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the hard work of becoming yourself.

More difficult because there is no zeitgeist to read, no template for follow, no mask to wear. Terrifying, actually, because it requires you to set aside what your friends expect, what your family and co-workers demand, and what your acquaintances require, to set aside the messages this culture sends, through its advertising, its entertainment, its distain, and its disapproval, about how you should behave.

Set aside the old traditional notion of female as nurturer and male as leader; set aside, too, the new traditional notion of female as superwoman and male as oppressor. Begin with that most frightening of all things, a clean slate. And then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: Because they are what I want, or wish for. Because they reflect who and what I am.

This is the hard work of life in the world, to acknowledge within yourself the introvert, the clown, the artist, the homebody, the goofball, the thinker. Look inside. That way lies dancing to the melodies spun out by your own heart.

And yet occasionally the old ghosts rise and remind us that the traditional ways are tenacious in reasserting themselves. When the president of Duke University commissioned a study on the status of women at the school, the results, released in 2003, were astonishing. Female undergraduates talked of a culture at the college of “effortless perfection,” in which they were expected to be attractive, welldressed, in great shape, and academically able.

I was mesmerized by that phrase: effortless perfection. Obviously it is an oxymoron. Even the illusion of perfections requires an enormous amount of work. I can tell you that by the end of a day trying to be perfect I was always as exhausted as if I’d done the whole thing at a fast clip in running shoes. There’s some muscle group around your shoulders that seizes up during the perfection dance and doesn’t let go until you are asleep, or alone. Or maybe it never really lets go at all.

The computer analogy is apt, I think, because perfection implies a combination of rote and bloodlessness that is essentially made for machines, not men and women. It is also bound to alienate others. “Perfection irritates as well as it attracts,” the writer Louis Auchincloss, who wrote of the careful facades in the world of old money, once said. But it torments, too, both those who are trying to attain it and those who feel they never can. The perfect mother (the toughest of all the ideas to imagine!) makes other women feel like failures simply by showing up and showing off. The perfect student can never step outside the safe box of the right answer, can never take a flyer on the honorable failure that may be more compelling than the safe paper that gets an A. What perfection requires is a kind of lockstep. Look at that word; imagine it in your mind’s eye, the forced march of the fearful, the physical opposite of the skip and the jump. Doesn’t it sound like something to avoid at all costs?

Someone sent me a T-shirt once that read well-behaved women don’t make history. They don’t make good lawyers, either, or businesswomen. Perfection is static, even boring. Imitations are redundant. Your true unvarnished self is what is wanted.

But this is worse: Someday, sometime, you will be sitting somewhere. A berm overlooking a pond in Vermont. The lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. A seat on the subway. And something bad will have happened: You will have lost someone you loved, or failed at something at which you badly wanted to succeed.

And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for some core to sustain you. And if you have been perfect all your life and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where that core ought to be.

I don’t want anyone I know to take that terrible chance. And the only way to avoid it is to listen to the small voice inside you that tells you to make mischief, to have fun, to be contrarian, to go another way. George Eliot wrote, “It is never to late to be what you might have been.” It is never too early, either. Take it from someone who has left the backpack full of bricks far behind, and every day feels light as a feather.

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