“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
And also of everyone trying to be perfect.
I have been thinking about what I’ve been writing about lately.
My grandfather’s “humorous” response to my announcing I had gotten a “96” on my arithmetic exam, which, if you will recall, was,
“Where’s the other ‘4’?”
(It wasn’t his fault. His very poor family in Russia could not afford a legitimate sense of humor. They had to settle for the lower grade “teasing that sounds like a joke but isn’t.”)
Surviving the sting of the “high-praise-third-rate-punchline” switcheroo, after whimpering in my room, I emerged to, henceforth throughout my life, as with the explorers of Yore and other places, search obsessively for that naggingly elusive “Other 4.”
What did happen to those “Other ‘4’”? If you can achieve “96” – like if you climbed 96 steps of a 100-step staircase, would you suddenly turn around and go back? You accomplished ninety-six percent of your objective! Why not bear down and finish the job?
I know that’s “apples” and “staircases.” One is physical; the other is… I don’t know what the other is. Maybe, at some strategic juncture during the exam, “Arithmetic Earl” got foolishly overconfident, or sloppily careless. Maybe one “four-mark” question was simply beyond his ability. Mathematics is difficult. I bet even Einstein didn’t always get a hundred.
EINSTEIN: “Dumbkopf! I forgot to carry the 7.”
Still, it gnaws at me – this concept of “Perfection.” Since no one ever achieves it, you begin to wonder if it actually exists. Maybe “Perfect’s” a “Ghost Word” – an idea, lacking evidenced validity. You pound intently on “Perfect’s” door and there’s nobody inside. You step into the house…
… and there’s wind.
There are a number of words like that. Heaven. The truth. Things you (may) reflexively believe in, though they (may be) factual “hot air.” Maybe “Perfect’s” just another of those words.
All I know is – and not just about my imperfect achievements but about everyone’s – I have no enthusiasm for examining the “96.” I am inexorably drawn to exploring the “4.”
Take a moment to imagine how popular that makes me.
To me, the “96” are the planes that landed without incident. My attention’s on the four planes that didn’t. Especially if they were flown by the same pilot.
Wait, that doesn’t work. Because the pilot would have had to survive at least three plane crashes. Let me try that again.
I’m not interested in the 99 planes that landed without incident. My attention’s on the one plane that didn’t.
I mean, it’s not that unusual. Do they examine the “Black Boxes” of the planes that arrive safely? No. (And nobody derides them for eschewing the “Positive Outcomes.” So you can see how that’s a little unfair.)
(Amor Towles’s) A Gentleman in Moscow.
The most enjoyable novel I have ever encountered, with its incomparable attention to detail. But there were also some detectable letdowns. The same guy wrote all the pages.
Why weren’t they all equally perfect?
Did the “Missed it by that much” (a miniscule fraction of a degree) bother him?
I just shrugged.
But I know who it did bother.
Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. Greatest pitcher of his generation. Struck out eleven batters in seven innings during the playoffs.
But he also surrendered a towering home run.
An incredible performance.
But not perfect.
And you could tell that he was struggling with that. During the postgame interview, Kershaw mentioned “I missed with one” and then immediately blew past it, not because he was keeping things in proportion, or because “professional athletes behave that way”, but because – and you could palpably feel it – deep down, it was absolutely eating the guy up!
THE INNER KERSHAW: “What the heck happened on that pitch?” (Kershaw’s unfathomable “The other 4.”)
“Closer” extraordinaire – he procures the crucial last outs of the game – Kenley Jansen. Perfect during the playoffs. Until he gave up a home run and blew the “Save.” (He was unable to retain the lead, in a game the Dodgers eventually lost.)
I read his quote in the following day’s newspaper, providing me no visual record his behavior. Was he totally honest? Or did a flickering “eye tell” betray some unspoken inner turmoil? I don’t know.
But I do know this. Kenley Jansen said something important, possibly the illuminating key to the confounding mystery of “Perfection.”
“I’m not a robot”, he explained to the media.
I think he was on to something.
Why are the most accomplished practitioners in their fields unilaterally denied the sublime experience of perfection?
“I’m not a robot.”
It’s just as simple as that.
You want to strive for perfection? Sure. Why not aim for the stars? (Or as Mel Brooks, reworking the title of Werner Von Braun’s biography proclaimed, “I Aim For the Stars… And Hit London.”)
It may be true than an “Impossible Standard” does, in fact, bolsteringly elevate your performance.
But it’s good to also remember Kenley Jansen’s – whether he meant it or not –
“I’m not a robot.”
And more importantly, deep inside you where it really matters…
To believe it.