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June 6th, 2019
If for a moment we think about the word ‘perfect’ or ‘perfection’, what exactly comes to mind?
The current cultural concept evokes something that is flawless, precisely accurate and fitting an ideal without even the tiniest exception.
This concept guides much of our thinking about the future regarding the plans we try to imagine and the results that we wish to see, but this concept, and our willingness to entertain it ultimately pollutes our ability to act.
The imaginative world that we can conjure is itself an immensely imperfect beast. At a base level there is the sheer magnitude of information that we do not have available in our imagination, due both to the limitations of our senses, their ability to take in such information, and also our inability to remember every single detail that might come our way. Beyond these first limitations, the double edged blessing of our imagination allows us to be host to this virus-concept of perfection. The current cultural concept is in fact not a fair representation of where the word comes from.
Arriving via French from 11th century Latin, the word ‘perfect’ arises from a meaning that is more akin to ‘completed’ or ‘accomplished’. Dissecting it’s original roots we can arrive at an equation of ‘completely’ and ‘to make, or do’. With this etymology in hand, we can see how far the meaning of the word ‘perfect’ has drifted. It’s long history indicates something more like ‘finished’ as opposed to some kind of product or result that meets an ideal in absolutely every way imaginable.
The differential here created by the drift in meaning is perhaps a bit more intuitive when we reframe it with a question:
When we try to imagine something we think we’d like to accomplish, do we focus on how we would actually do it, or do we instead imagine something fully formed? Like an animal emerging from an egg?
The original meaning is about the cessation of doing. To make or do completely. The backbone of meaning in the word perfect is actually an active verb: that of doing.
And yet our modern idea of perfect so often keeps us from even starting. This is the insidious effect that our new concept of the word inflicts upon us.
Something perfect is not necessarily flawless, it’s just done.
If we accomplish something and it’s good enough but it doesn’t actually meet a lofty ideal, then it actually still fits the original meaning of perfect.
This feels like a contradiction, but the feeling evoked by such a strange sounding sentence is perhaps an indication of territory where our imagination can go that reality cannot.
The nuance that connects our current concept to the original meaning in a practical way, is that some accomplishment is probably not done if there are flaws with the result, which merely implies that we are not actually done yet and that we simply need to keep tinkering.
Efforts here become asymptotic. There is ultimately a bridge to the ideal that cannot be crossed and it’s wise to remember something an English professor once said:
You never actually finish an essay. You just stop working on it.
An episode related to this one is Episode 154: Progress or Perfection?
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