Pursuit of Perfect
Dealing with mess and uncertainty
So you can’t get stuff done because you want it to be pitch perfect? Welcome to the perfectionist’s club. What do they do? How does it feel like to be a perfectionist? Is that a good thing or a challenge? What does a perfectionist look like?
No seriously. A person who aims high, and wants to build a working science project with molten lava erupting perfectly like liquid chocolate oozing out of marbled brownie as their first summer school project with clay, sand, and fuming sulphuric acid is what an average perfectionist looks like.
Or maybe finish the mathematics assignment optimally in the shortest way possible or not complete their math homework because they would either be at the top or not run the race at all. There is a general sense of reaching the rooftop and going beyond, even though the agent might be unaware of the room, floor, and surroundings.
In my case, with ambitions of getting a six-pack, I will either have a diet hitting the exact macronutrients with 140g of protein, 260g of carbs, and 65g of fats or eat 2 pounds of mozzarella cheese, 17 baby gorillas and dip myself in a chocolate river.
Well not exactly, but that’s how it feels in my mind. It’s either a perfect day of eating chicken, broccoli, oats, and pasta or a terrible junk day where I ate a couple of Oreos or a few slices of pizza. In a similar vein, the days where I end up hitting all my daily goals, I feel productive, else I am the third laziest sloth in the entire cosmos.
So what exactly is this mindset? How does this feel mentally and emotionally? Does this affect all areas of my life, i.e. is this specific to certain behaviors or pervasive? You know, it’s all or nothing, 😉 so all it is.
Since time immemorial I have been a night owl. I would see the morning sun more often on night outs than after waking up. Naturally so, I ended up valuing the ability to wake up early, getting my act together early in the morning, as it has always been challenging for me.
With an interesting turn of events, my wake up times changed drastically in the past few weeks. I clock in before 7 am, before 6 on some days, well before my alarm clock cries on every single day. How do I feel about that? Pretty good to be frank.
On the weekends though I would have a more relaxed sleep getting off my bed by 8ish or 9. I feel bad as if I missed the mark on these days by not getting up as early as I did throughout the weekdays. Technically speaking, my day would simply start an hour late; I can get my morning meditation in, have coffee and breakfast, and continue with my day regardless, which I would do anyway.
But there’s a nagging feeling of guilt that I didn’t do well, or try hard enough and that it is not a perfect day unless I clocked in very early. In my head, I either wake up early(there’s no fixed hour but 5:30ish is early for me) every 7 days of the week or I don’t, to qualify for me to consider myself a “morning person”.
Now, is being a morning person according to my standards important? Is that the top priority in my life? Will the FBI arrest me or the IRS sue me if I don’t clock in before 6 on 28% of my days? Probably not, that‘s what my hope is.
There are no real downsides to having a routine that is flexible enough for me to be productive on the weekdays and be relaxed by getting a good sleep over the weekends. Yet, this nagging feeling of “not trying hard enough” to achieve the perfect “weekly routine” persists. Funnily enough, one reason I do wake up early on 5 days is probably that I do try hard to do that because I consider it to be important. But I do not always realize or remember that truth.
And god forbid if I miss my meditation or cannot afford to have my breakfast leisurely because of work, that makes me go berserk! Counterintuitively, meditation makes me angrier these days than when I wouldn’t meditate before.
Let me share an interesting incident. I missed an assignment deadline this past week. I prepared a barebones draft for the solution in rough and promised myself to write it the next morning, turning it in before the deadline of noon the next day.
The next morning, I woke up and got ready to write my answer in fair well before 9 am (thanks to my new found morning genes 🤓). It was then I realized that the deadline for this assignment was the previous midnight. I felt both angry and stupid at that moment.
Part of the trouble was I felt guilty of not submitting it while drafting a rough solution. It might have taken 20 more minutes to write down the details, and I probably shied away not just due to fatigue but more so because I knew I would write a better response after reading the research papers again the next morning.
Long story short, my attitude of perfectionism handicapped me from coming up with a working solution because I wanted a perfect solution on the first go. My TA told me that I could still get half the credits if I submitted it by the next day.
I sat the heck down, wrote down my response within 20 minutes without thinking 29 times how my solution is not going to cure global obesity or my writing might not be considered in the same league as Shakespeare. Lesson learned the hard way: get it done first, improve, and work on perfection later.
Long story short, my attitude of perfectionism handicapped me from coming up with a working solution because I wanted a perfect solution on the first go!
Despite the draining trait of chasing perfection in every aspect of my life, there is a silver lining to it. The things I do get done, they are pretty good. Albeit not perfect. I have realized it is way smarter to get stuff done in the just-do-it attitude rather than the perfectionist attitude.
The just-do-it attitude allows for exponentially more improvement over the long run, eventually reaching a great or a near-perfect outcome. Paradoxically enough, the perfectionist mindset doesn’t lead to perfection.
As a perfectionist, I can attest that I spend a lot of time in my head, imagining how I will blow things off by coming with a sub-optimal solution to a problem, instead of coming up with a god damn workable solution and improving with practice (iterations).
I believe that the challenge of changing this mindset involves pride. In that case, my intent would not be to write the best article ever written when I will be writing an article, is hard when you are so used to this mindset. It is ingrained in mind to aim for THE BEST and NOTHING ELSE.
Therefore, when I do end up writing a bad article, I feel bad about it, and when I write a good one, it still doesn’t give me that contentment as it is not THE BEST. With a shifting perspective, I am beginning to realize that the world is not black and white. The perception of THE BEST is also very interesting. What I perceive to be THE BEST, if it is somebody else’s work, might just be very good and not perfect.
And that path they took to reach there is, you guessed it, iterations which didn’t happen in one shot. As much as I wish and have searched for it, there has never been a solution, in my experience, which solves any important real-life problem in one go like a snap yielding the/a perfect solution.
Instead, coming up with a good or a great solution is messy in the real world. It consists of dealing with a lot of uncertainties, assumptions, making guesses, dropping ideals, incorporating approximations and estimates.
Real-world doesn’t consist of well-defined problems with neat numbers that can be fit into a closed-form mathematical solution resulting in a definite answer. Whether I am working on how to manage my sleep, balance work and play, cook biryani with more pizzaz, there’s a lot to be done. Chances are I don’t even know about the challenge well enough.
Thanks to my meditation practice (one of the rare things I can practice despite being imperfect at it), I have more mental space to be self-aware and experience things more vividly.
With this self-knowledge of how it feels to go through any particular activity, I aim to gain insights about the situation, draft a well-defined problem, brainstorm ways of overcoming that, experiment with the various solutions, and test for myself it works or not. I am making progress with this new rugged attitude of getting into the mess and dealing with it. I don’t know if it’s the perfect way to go to deal with perfectionism though. It is embracing uncertainty.
Data Science, Blogger, University of Maryland '21, IITK'19