“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
We say that a lot around the office. Probably because we’re all a bunch of perfectionists brought together (strategically) for the common goal of creating something great. And we’re all constantly battling the desire to make something perfect – instead of just making something great.
Even with that statement, my bias reveals itself. Like so many others, I frequently buy into the idea that “great” is just that: great, but not perfect. And wouldn’t perfect be so much better?
Most companies are looking for people who won’t settle for less than the absolute best and who will work tirelessly to achieve greatness – both for the organization and for their own careers. And most people (if they’re honest) would really like perfect. Perfect is what many of us tell ourselves we should be.
And yet, perfection is an illusion because there’s always something more we can do, something better. We can never reach perfection, but we keep driving toward it, and that keeps us endlessly spinning and pushing and running.
It also keeps us from the good. The pursuit of perfection keeps us from just doing something – anything! – good because we’re paralyzed. If we can’t be perfect, why try at all?
The pursuit of perfection – the attempt to make ourselves god-like and untouchable – is always the enemy of every good thing in life: peace and joy and friendship and love. When we seek perfection in an addictive way – when we can’t slow down or turn off the constant need to make everything “just a bit better” – we do so at the risk of our relationships, our health, and our very souls.
That’s the bad news, but thankfully there’s good news too. Before we get to that, allow me to share a personal story.
Recently, I witnessed a grown woman have a mini-meltdown in Hayes Valley. All because the man driving the car missed the only parking spot and why couldn’t they just get to the ice cream shop already and have the darned ice cream they should have been enjoying by now?
She’d planned a great afternoon of Christmas gift shopping and ice cream eating and hand holding. A picture perfect afternoon.
Instead, they were rushing around stores and navigating crowded streets and standing in lines. So many lines. And their time was running out. He was leaving soon, and this wasn’t what she’d envisioned.
That woman, of course, was me. I’m sorry to say it. I must have sounded a lot like Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
“All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
The man (my beloved fiancé James) insisted he forgave me and forgot my childish behavior as soon as I stopped my pity-party and apologized. But, in true perfectionist style, I had a hard time letting go. I wanted to punish myself for my bad behavior and push myself to be better – to be perfect.
But that need for perfection – and that inability to let go of it – was exactly what got me in that situation in the first place.
Now that James and I are long-distance, weekends are the only time we get to be together. Most weekends, I’m able to just enjoy the time for what it is without over-planning or over-managing our schedule.
But that day, I had clearly put much too much weight on my carefully-crafted expectations, and they crumbled under the pressure. Not unlike Charlie Brown’s little tree.
As we sat in traffic at the corner of Hayes and Octavia, I began to construct a very convincing narrative of self-pity centered on just how unfair all this was.
James and I have such limited time together, and here we are just sitting in traffic instead of enjoying our time with all my pre-planned activities!
Of course, I had a choice in that moment. I could have enjoyed that time. The sitting in the car time. Listening to Christmas music and holding my love’s hand time. Talking and sneaking kisses at red lights time.
But I blew it. I mean, I really blew it. And I knew it, too. I felt much like Charlie Brown in that moment. I heard the voices of all the other characters in this scene:
“You’re hopeless, Laura. Completely hopeless.”
“You’ve been dumb before, Laura. But this time you really did it!”
And I spoke those words back to myself: “Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.”
I quickly shifted from anger at the situation to anger at myself. The self-deprecating shame spiral came on so fast, and I struggled to fight it. It was pulling me down, and even James’ sweet words didn’t lift me as quickly as they normally do.
That’s the thing about enemies like perfectionism. We can’t fight them off on our own. And when we’re left without defenses – without truth and grace and the love of God – we’re vulnerable to attack. We can, much too quickly, become unhinged.
Thankfully, we can deploy those defenses – the truth and grace and love – and fend off the attacks. Those defenses come to our aid much more quickly and effectively when we’ve been practicing them. When we’ve been studying truth, when we’ve been speaking grace to ourselves and others, when we’ve been basking in the love of God.
Your nemesis may not be perfectionism like mine is. Maybe it’s envy or self-doubt or pride or a physical addiction. But the defense tactics are the same, and they take practice.
James and I did eventually make our way to the ice cream shop, ordering two small scoops. One peppermint bark with cocoa nibs and the other a sweet cinnamon cream with bits of walnut rugelach and chocolate fudge.
As we sat side-by-side in the cool of the winter sun, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy this moment in the slightest if I didn’t make things right with my love.
Thankfully, he received my apologies with his usual grace, which only made me feel even less deserving of the sweet treat I now held in my hands.
“That’s the point, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Nothing good is a result of our deserving it. Everything is a gift. You are a gift to me,” he said sweetly, “and I don’t deserve that. But our job is just to be grateful with the gifts we have and graciously give to others.”
Of course, he was right. I was letting perfect be the enemy of good. Thankfully, he was my Linus in that moment – reminding me what Christmas is all about.
“The glory of the Lord shone ‘round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”
Peace on earth. Good will toward men.
While I couldn’t erase the adolescent sulking and unfounded frustration of a few moments earlier, I could make a choice right then to change. To soften. To choose peace and good will. To humbly receive and give what I could in that moment.
And what did I have to give then? Just myself. My attention. My complete presence with my love. And total gratitude for the undeserved gifts that God has graciously given me.
As James and I walked back to the car, cold-hand-in-cold-hand, the distance that perfectionism had placed between us was gone. Instead, the generosity of spirit that we each showed to each other – him certainly more than me – opened up a new space to simply enjoy the good and let things be as they were.
Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.
The saying is so true. We have a choice in how we respond to our present realities. We can cling to our ideals – be they motivated by perfection, envy, pride, or fear. (And as Elizabeth Gilbert says, perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes.) Or, we can wisely choose to embrace the circumstances, people, and – ultimately –gifts presented to us.
In my experience, some things only appear to be gifts in hindsight.
That day in Hayes Valley was a gift in so many ways. More than anything, it was a beautiful reminder for me to embrace each moment with my love without putting too much pressure on the specifics.
When faced with the pressure of limited time – or money or limited “anything,” for that matter – my natural inclination is to manage the situation in great detail. Instead of letting my tendencies rule me, I’m asking God rule my heart.
He is the Good Father who gives good gifts at the right time. I’m learning to recognize his voice in the moment, to hear him in the voice of my loved ones, and to remember that while none of life’s joys are deserved, they’re meant to be embraced. And they’re all good.