A person sits at a desk with head in hands in front of a laptop

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Artwork: Eliza Williams

What is perfection? The Oxford Dictionary says that being perfect is to be free from any flaw or defect in condition or quality; that it’s a state of being faultless. For me, the idea of perfection has aspirational value but is a little counter-productive.

Perfection is something which we struggle to put our finger on, but which is strangely familiar to us. It permeates through teachings of faith, themes of literature and the brushstrokes of art. Pop-culture though has really brought perfection to the forefront of our minds. Advertising selling us the ‘perfect’ lifestyle and simultaneously reinforcing our own sense of imperfection. But perfection is so often defined in the negative by expressing simply what it is not. Faith and religion, for example, articulate what is the divine by acknowledging and condemning our own imperfection.

When we were young and starting to learn a new musical instrument, because our parents thought that it would make us smarter, or we had just started a new team sport, we were constantly subjected to the phrase ‘practice makes perfect.’ But, since perfection is an innately unattainable standard, what are we actually being taught to aim for?

Towards the end of last year, I too was told to practice. A very seasoned editor said to me: ‘you need to just become comfortable with putting out articles that you’ve done your best on and are 80 percent happy with… and get over your perfectionism.’

My desire for my writing to always be perfect, to project my ideal self constantly, had been preventing me from actually writing. I’d have an idea but then would abandon it because of my uncertainty over whether I could make it mind-blowingly awesome. Uncertainty about whether I could make it perfect.

I was introduced to the idea that you should, as a general rule, become 80 percent happy with your work. The remaining 20 percent is significantly more challenging and is largely affected by factors outside of your control. These could be your physical health or your state of mind, or you might not ever get to 100 simply because of subjective standards.

When I wrote my last column piece, some people gave me constructive feedback, some agreed with the sentiment and others dismissed my thoughts as part of my personality style. None of this was unexpected, nor was it unwelcome. But I achieved my goal to push through my perfectionism, and as a bonus, I was able to inspire a couple of readers’ existential crises.

The thing is though, practice does actually make you better. Practice makes you engage in a process of trying things out and succeeding a little bit and also failing a little bit. In so doing you are actively learning what doesn’t work, what is useful and what is unnecessary, enabling you to allocate your time and energy appropriately.

If you are going to perform a music recital you have to work on the parts of the music you find most challenging because otherwise, the overall piece will sound terrible. You won’t know which parts of the music they are until you’ve completed at least one trial run or practice.

It is also important to bear in mind the need to be constantly pushing yourself to do better. It is not enough to reach the point in a task where you think you have reached your 80 percent and then automatically finish it with a thought of “it’s good enough”. It is not good enough – it is a cop-out. It is a cop-out because you are not actually improving, or even really completing the task, you are simply compromising within your comfort zone.

Perfection may be unattainable, but your best is a moving goal post. By not pushing the boundaries or the goals, you are settling for second-best. You can move it forward by one centimetre, one metre or one kilometre – it does not matter; what matters is that you have improved and that you have achieved your best. That is a truly admirable accomplishment.

So, there you have it! Me writing a column this year is really just a slightly polished form of practice and all of you readers are here for the ride.