Letting Perfect be the Enemy of "Oh Just Do Something Already."

If you know me at all, it doesn't seem like this would be a problem I would have. And yet, I can assure you, it is something I struggle with on a regular basis. In looking around at the Internets of late, it seems to be something that others struggle with too, so I thought I'd write about it.

So there's a thing that happens where nothing is quite right. We can envision something as it should be and anything short of that seems like a pale comparison, practically a joke. When we could have the awesome of the perfect thing, why should we be asked to settle for anything less? Why shouldn't we push ourselves to achieve the thing that is obviously so much better?

This is a thing for me in my writing. It's a thing for me in my knitting. It's a thing for me in a lot of ways. It's an outlook I sort of struggle with when it comes to politics and compromise and solutions to issues at work. I have problems being invested in something and yet being flexible about it at the same time. I have worked REALLY HARD over the years at getting better at this, because frankly, the world does not give a damn what my level of investment is in terms of repaying me with exactly what I want. The world, as a whole, doesn't do that, as there are all these other people in it who also want what they want and have different views of perfection.

Not to mention that there are always real-world limitations: do I have unending amounts of time to achieve my goal? Of course not. Can I afford the materials I really want? Probably not. (I have an absurd desire for artisan yarn, for example, but $40 for 100 yds is not feasible on my budget.) Is my desire practical? Maybe? But hypotheticals aren't good at noting real-world applicability or practicality, so I'm sure there's something I've overlooked.

These real-world limitations also apply to other people. Obviously, everyone should just do X so that things would be so much better. But assuming X invariably also assumes that everyone out there is a rational actor who shares my brain, or at least my priorities and expectations, and again I've learned the hard way that my brain is only mine, and just because I feel something a lot doesn't mean anyone else feels it too. Nor do I have the right to expect that of them, because I know no one else has the right to expect that of me.

It's funny; I identify as a progressive liberal. Some people paint that stripe of political and social belief as idealistic; I view it as darkly realistic. I think that conservative political belief is idealistic because there's so much that's theoretical about it, and it relies so much on everyone feeling the same way and doing the same thing. That said, it's entirely possible to have liberal progressive goals be similarly idealistic. You can not only think that perfect is not only achievable, but that no other outcome is possible or desirable. I don't think that's the way things actually work, though; at the very least, I can't think of any historical examples to back up this idea. The way we get things done seems to be through incremental change; even the biggest breakthroughs that seem sudden can be traced back to a thousand tiny steps and alterations prior to the event. Everything is a step at a time; nobody can eat an elephant in one go.

The temptation is, though, to accept only the perfect, which means that stuff you could achieve that falls short just doesn't get done. The perfect isn't just the enemy of the good, it's the enemy of "let's get something in place and see how it goes, and then we'll fix it once we see how it works in play." It's the enemy of deadlines, of increments, of moving forward. I'm not saying that people should rush crappy stuff ahead just to do it -- really I'm not -- but there is a point at which you have to be committed to "as good as this can get right now" versus a Platonic ideal.

I don't begrudge anyone their feelings; we've all got them, and they're all valid (even if I'd disagree regarding the validity of some of the criteria some feelings are based on). The Internet doesn't encourage us to take a breath and judge validity, though. The format encourages us to vent, and there's a comfort to joining a bunch of people venting en masse on similar topics. While social conversation and pressure are absolutely means to effect change and should be used, they can also serve as a distraction and get in the way, often elevating the theoretical, personal, "perfect" above less exalted compromises and solutions, and I think that's dangerous in the long run. If we can't accept a flawed (but fixable) improvement to the current problem over an ideal that cannot come to pass, then we aren't ever going to see change happen -- whether that's progress on my dissertation or a larger social issue -- and that, to my mind, is what's really unacceptable.

 

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