Ignoring Perfection

Brennan A. Wheeler, BS, MS is a technology consultant and sometimes blogger, writing about his travels and microblogging his every opinion. He also moonlights as a philosopher, economist, and freelance humanitarian. He is currently on sabbatical is Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he is learning Spanish and also that there are people who think, feel, and live differently than he does. As you may have guessed, Brennan is also my brother, younger specifically. I have asked Brennan to contribute a post because he has developed a very raw and interesting approach to life. We have both struggled with perfectionism but have sought very different resolutions. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do. Without further ado, here he is in his own words…

Ignoring Perfection

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” And other such phrases. Absolutely they are valuable and make sense. They wouldn’t be sayings if they weren’t worth their salt. They just aren’t for me.

For me, there are two types of activities: things I know I can do well, no matter the amount of preparation, and things I know I can’t do well, no matter the amount of preparation. Regarding the latter, these are things that I know that, no matter how much I think about them, no matter how much brainpower I use, my hands and muscles aren’t trained well enough to do what my brain says. Imagine a surgeon on his first day. So I don’t have patience. I lack it. I know that no matter how much I prepare, I will still mess up whatever I’m doing and have to do it one more time. I don’t want to prepare; I want to get in there and get my hands dirty. I don’t want to wait. I want to do.

This may seem silly, like a waste. Everyone knows you should prepare. It saves a lot of time, effort, frustration, and money. I know this. I know this and despite this, I still want to get in there and mess up. I learn by mistakes when I don’t know better. I’ll do something hastily the first time and learn where all my mistakes would have been anyway, no matter the amount of preparation I had put into something. So I jump in, make my mistakes, and do it right the second time.

I suppose an example would be useful. I am terrible. No, wait, let me underline it. I am terrible at doing work with my hands, things around the house. I mean typically wood work. Like working with putty and bondo. Fixing a hole in a door. Putting down new flooring or quarter round. So if I know I am going to do something that I’m not good at, I hardly prepare. I know it won’t make any difference, I’m still going to mess it up. No matter how careful I am. But by doing it once and messing it up, I get a feel for how to do something.

Once I needed to replace a piece of wood on the threshold of my front door. Termites, you see. Taking it up is not hard, of course. Use a hammer or a crowbar and pull it up. Be careful not to scratch the door, framing, or other parts of the wood floor. You can see the caulk come up with it. A lesson on entropy here. That’s how easy it is to pull up. To put down, you have to find the same type of wood, the same style, get it cut exactly the same length, maybe one or both of the end needs to be a 45° angle. You then need to nail it down with finishing nails. Paint it. Then caulk it. And you’ve needed to buy all this stuff, along with the paintbrush and caulk gun if you didn’t have them already. It’s a lot of more time and effort. So I do it twice. I know I’m going to mess this up somewhere. The cutting of the wood (the length and/or the angles). Of course, if you cut it too short, you need more wood. It may be a good idea to get extra on your run to Home Depot. I would mess up the nails. The painting. The caulk. Something, somewhere. So I do it once, get in some practice, and do it again much better the second time.

That is my whole point. Do it once to learn from your mistakes without the heavy investment of proper preparation.

I do this at work as well. When I’m in a situation I haven’t been in before or don’t know how to handle, I do my best, make my best decision given the information in front of me. I know it’s good but it never feels quite right. But I pay very close attention to what I do, what others do, including their reaction to my actions, and I learn from it. I do it better the next time. What else can I do?

This is my point about perfection. It’s not about getting it right the first time. I play the long game. I get it right the second time, or at least eventually. But you don’t stop until it’s right. And you’ll never get it perfect. Humans aren’t robots. There is something to be said for perfection and I’m not suggesting you stop at pretty good. But you have to adjust your expectations to fit reality. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just humanly perfect.

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