“Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable” (Lord Chesterfield).
JUST BECAUSE PERFECTION IS OUT OF OUR REACH RIGHT NOW, THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE SHOULDN’T PURSUE IT. There are many goals that are unachievable but still worth trying to achieve because the effort itself is beneficial. Perfection is one of them. We exert a greater effort and see better results when we aim high rather than low. As Ralph Barton Perry said, “A man can do his best only by confidently seeking (and perpetually missing) an unattainable perfection.”
What is commonly called “perfectionism” is not a good trait, of course. That’s the picky, neurotic impulse to accept nothing but absolute perfection. Such thinking is not beneficial. Indeed, the “pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement” (George Will).
But we are not recommending perfectionistic intolerance. We are simply suggesting that striving for perfection (call it “excellence” if you wish) is an uplifting exercise. Along the way, we’ll have to accept a good deal of imperfection in our own lives and that of others.
The pursuit of perfection involves us in two disciplines: the discipline of waiting and the discipline of hardship. In regard to waiting, Voltaire said, “Perfection is attained by slow degrees; it requires the hand of time.” The higher our standards, the more patient we will have to be. And as for hardship, we must understand that the process of being perfected is not easy. “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials” (Chinese proverb).
Finally, I’d like to suggest something you may not have thought about. We often think perfection would mean filling in the gaps and adding to our lives things that are not there right now, but the truth is often just the opposite. I believe Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was right: “Perfection is finally attained, not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
So where would you be if your innermost character had reached its perfect culmination? I recommend that you strive to go there.
“We are fallible. We certainly haven’t attained perfection. But we can strive for it, and the virtue is in the striving” (Carlos P. Rómulo).