© Mathias Maul

Every step counts: A Plea for More Precision

A few months ago there was an Internet meme, which showed an advertising brochure of McDonald’s Japan with perfectly arranged/presented burgers next to a snapshot of a Tokyo costumer with his freshly prepared lunch. There was no discernible difference between (staged) advertisement and reality. Some commenters remarked cynically: why put so much effort into perfecting a hamburger which is going to be wolfed down anyway. What a waste of time and energy! What needless perfectionism!

“Be perfect!” is one of the five driving forces well known in coaching and therapy circles. It’s one of the personality-shaping behaviour patterns the transaction analyst Taibi Kahler wrote about in 1975. The desire - or even the drive - to be perfect seems to be the sum of the other four: Try hard! Please others! Hurry up! Be strong!

How often was a grumpily “Just three more minutes” heard out of the bathroom because the better half hadn’t finished plucking their beard or eyebrows yet, but the taxi had already arrived? How many e-mails were sent out days or weeks too late because they had been re-written until they absolutely, positively, precisely expressed what they were supposed to express? In such a situation neither a “Don’t be such a perfectionist!” nor a “Just send it off!” by the boss are actually helpful.

A constructed stigma

At first glance it’s like this: The -ism constructs a stigma that is highly welcome in a society with a tendency towards cynicism. Devaluating something that is special, but which one is not, consequently results in upvaluating oneself. The anger about the beard-plucker is the more of the same: the perfectionist as a construct of society’s expectations represents what one cannot stand and yet secretly admires.

Back to the driving forces. Being perfect, or - broken down for this article - making things perfectly is, of course, a desirable goal in itself. If one of the legs of the chair I’m sitting on were shorter than the others, it wouldn’t be perfect and I’d be annoyed. No carpenter will be accused of perfectionism when he makes all legs of a chair the same length and the drawers so that they slide into the cupboard like butter. Typos are also a great source of amusement - after all, you can proofread your text.

But at some point the author inevitably says: Well, that’s it. Done. Typing errors? Who cares. At some point even the beard-plucker is finished and then you sit in a taxi, your sweetheart looks at your chin, says “You forgot one there!” and it doesn’t matter. An inner instance decides on perfection, on completion, and at some point one is simply finished. Some people reach this threshold earlier, others later - or never, at least that’s how they perceive it. This might make them unhappy. But they are mistaken when they believe that their “perfectionism” is “to blame.”

Perfect or happy?!

On the cover of one of these trendy self-coaching magazines I read in a very bold and squiggly typeface: “I’ll leave it like that! I’d rather be happy than perfect!” - almost as if one precludes the other. In order to understand this strange sentence better it helps to look at the definition of perfect: If something is perfect that simply means it is finished. I could stop my article right here, in the middle of this sentence … if I would believe that it is perfect. However, it lacks something: I haven’t put forward all my arguments and I haven’t written my - hopefully intelligent - conclusion. These steps towards a finished product require precision. And precision is, unlike perfection, not just a matter of opinion.

After all, something can be finished, aka perfect-ed, without precision: Think of a cake that a five-year-old concots for Mother’s Day. Somehow the candle manages to stick on this heap of cream and flour crumbs, but there is nothing precise about it. Finished, perfect, also means that something is enough for its purpose - the would-be cake stirs the heart.

The inner standard decides whether something is perfect or not. If I think this article is ready for publication, it is perfect. My editor may disagree; then (but only then!) one can agree on a new, common definition. The precision is not lessened by this. It is necessary in order to get further in the direction of the finished product. Also, it follows mostly objectively perceptible standards.

Folding to the Power of Zen

In origami, there are models that only emerge from a square after two hundred or more folding steps. A single inaccurate fold in step seven can greatly disfigure the stag beetle that is to emerge after step 289. Each step is closely related to all previous steps, and thus even an error of a millimetre increases exponentially.

A tried and tested solution to resolve the -ism issue can be to make each step the most important. Here is a small guide:

  1. Find measurable criteria to enable precision. The bearded man looks into the mirror and snips and plucks until he can’t find any more protruding hairs.
  2. Make sure that every single precise step is enjoyable or at least not annoying. If that is difficult, make the steps so small, until they are at least okay. Anyone who loathes filing a tax return, even though a refund is beckoning, can - do not laugh! - look at every single form entry as a precise and satisfying action that brings him or her closer to perfection.
  3. Practice making decisions - and sticking to them - outside of the tricky situations you are familiar with. Perfection, being finished, is based above all on your own decision when to call it a day, just like …

… I’m doing it now. It is easier to define being ready when every step is the most important one. Simply because I’m already satisfied after every single step, which makes it much easier to stop unlike when I’m trying to work towards a vague satisfaction (the perfect beard, the perfect email).

Because, ultimately, “be perfect!” means nothing more than “become complete,” and this is what we’re all, right from the outset.