Woody Paige once asked, "If practice makes perfect, and nobody''s perfect, then why practice?" Throughout my life, I’ve encountered well-meaning individuals who’ve said things like, "If it''s worth doing, then it''s worth doing well.” Maybe that’s why it’s taken me a long time to internalize the self-evident truth that nobody’s perfect.
I started early to apply perfectionistic standards not merely to the consequential but also to the trivial. I remember, before my bar mitzvah, torturing my mother about the details of the event. One week prior to my thirteenth birthday, we trekked up and down King’s Highway, one of Brooklyn’s longest commercial boulevards, on a quest to find just the right shoes to go with my bar mitzvah suit. Serves me right that after window-gazing in eight or nine stores, the wing-tips that I''d liked at the first shop had already been sold by the time we got back there.
A bit later in life, as I embarked on a career in medical academia, I’d write and re-write articles, working and re-working statistics. Invariably, my behavior created significant publication delays. Fortunately one day, a senior mentor (also a tormentor) diagnosed me as suffering from "analysis paralysis." After that, over time, I learned to recognize when it was safe to stop my incessant checking and form my data-based conclusions for reporting in the scientific literature.
Today, much advice is written on how to overcome perfectionism. Some argue that we should celebrate our flaws and frailties. In his ballad "Anthem", Leonard Cohen sings, Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that''s how the light gets in. Since at its core, perfectionism is often about worries over mistakes and anxiety related to the "little things," I ask myself: what’s the worst case scenario? Can I deal with that outcome? I work on convincing myself that glitches and weaknesses aren''t all that terrible. I instruct myself to be more open about my shortcomings. A major motivation for writing this blog is, in fact, related to that type of remedial thinking.
Despite all of that, however, I still hold the unfashionable belief that, in everyone’s life, situations exist which call for particularly high standards. Two examples in my world come to mind. First, in my work as an oncologist, I oversee treatment of patients by irradiation. The intervention is valuable but potentially dangerous, so I feel compelled to be nothing less than perfectionistic about where in each tumor we deposit the radiation dose and which normal organs we need to spare from our radiation beams. Airline personnel, I imagine, share similarly high standards when they insist that maintenance procedures or flight paths be strictly followed. Zero tolerance is modern code for such scenarios when perfectionism is not acceptable but mandatory.
I tend to suffer perfectionism also when I prepare lectures—even more so than when I write a paper, because when you are reading an article (or, for that matter, a blog) that I''ve written, you can put it down if it doesn''t find favor. Not so in the parallel reality of the lecture hall. Unless you''re particularly ill-mannered, you can’t easily up and leave. During my speech, you are pretty much my prisoner. So I feel responsible for making my presentation as interesting as possible, and that takes a lot of effort.
I realize that I haven''t yet conquered perfectionism (and wonder if anyone ever does). Clearly I need to continue developing more realistic standards and forgiving myself when I don’t reach even those lesser benchmarks. But since I''ll never completely eradicate my “problem,” perhaps my best solution is to focus my incurable tendencies in directions where they can do the most good, on situations that require attention to the intricate needs and safety of others.
Until next Monday, Shalom.