In the culture when we are engaged in a purchase or an acquisition of a service, after offering the currency to complete the transaction, one hears, “Perfect!” as if by some marvelous and unsuspected act, one has entered a space known as “perfection” according to the service/sale provider.
It is not that you have offered the precise amount of currency down to the exact penny or that you have expressed some appreciation that could only be designed and delivered by some angel, or that the provider has somehow created the perfect, and therefore memorable and clearly repeatable, experience.
Telling me I have just participated in something that another considers “perfect” is far past a step too far. It is to exaggerate the nature of the experience to a deception, or even worse, to a lie. Reaching for perfection, as in a perfect golf game, or attaining monthly sales goals, while perhaps noteworthy, may be laudable, but is also a kind of trap, if applied to such modest and normal situations. The experience also debases those laudable and lofty moments when, in a concert hall, an art gallery or even an operating room, something near to a perfect performance is actually achieved.
As for the “trap,” for centuries, women have been mired in pursuit of a “perfect body”, presumably to attract a man who would be interested only in a “perfect body”. Such pursuit imprisons the woman and insults most men. Falling far short of a perfect body, many men have, on some different scales, pursued the perfect career, or the perfect execution of their latest project. And for the purpose of setting high standards, envisioning what one considers a “perfect” outcome seems reasonable and even justified. However, when the time comes for putting into action whatever “perfect plan” has been designed, building in a normal expectation of both errors and adjustments seems only natural and reasonable. It is in this “execution phase” that the rubber meets the road, where the estimates of time needed, resources required, skills deployed and budget needed often melt into a new reality. Sometimes those new realities are so costly that the project has to be aborted; sometimes, it must be trimmed, and occasionally it can be enhanced.
Athletes, especially at the highest levels, are trained to envision a performance in which they best their previous best. The can “see” themselves jumping higher, running faster, scoring the winning goal, laying out the perfect pass, inflicting the perfect body-check, making the highlight reel save in goal. And through continual rehearsal of these moments, a kind of pattern of “belief” is grafted onto the prospect. “Believe it and you will see it!” was born in this mind-set. Continued discipline, both through acting out these visions, training to keep the body in ‘shape’ and ‘highly tuned’ can and will generate opportunities for success at advanced levels. All of this seems so obvious as to be hardly worth repeating.
However, in a “star” obsessed, perfection-addicted, and extremely fragile ego-dominated culture, the pattern outlined in the last paragraph has become a model for so many aspects of the lives of especially young people. A perfect “face” through make-up, a perfect figure, through combined intense exercise and minimal diet, a “perfect” kind of acceptance and “friendship” among peers, a perfectly secret social media expression of derision and contempt of some peer who does not “fit” into the gang, whatever attributes and signs that have been appropriated by the group, and the perfect “explanation” for failure on tests, homework not done, and the transfer of “blame” to another, as the first line of defence of the perfect reputation.
There are many signs of this kind of repression; they include: silence and repression of authentic feelings (while blaming others for imposing that silence), anorexia, bulimia, isolation, self-loathing, self-alienation, depression, and in the most extreme cases, suicide. Self-sabotage, in our culture, is so rampant, as to be reaching dangerous proportions. And the dynamic is not restricted to the private and the personal lives of individuals.
It applies also to the kind of worldview that we adopt. For example, a worldview that imposes the notion of enemy on all others, in some epic competition, is another version of this kind of self-imposed perfection. It goes far beyond the perfection that leaves no “crumbs in the butter” and no unmatched bread slices in the sandwiches, and no “ticked” notes in the piano recital. Absolute truths, the kind that ideologues apply to their opposites, (“they are all wrong, while we are all right!”) is the kind of self-righteousness that has already sabotaged the evangelical Christian movement. It will bring about the implosion of dictatorships, too, sooner or later, although much harm will be done prior to the implosion. And the pursuit of, and the acceptance of nothing less, continues to foster and nurture divisions of opinions that are really not thought-out, detail-dependent, empirical verifiable theories. Mere grenades of “perfection” to be thrown at an opponent whenever s/he dares to contradict our position express a tragic and empty hollow self, that we attempt to “protect” with our “perfect” mask.
Binary robots have more nuance and more ‘sophistication’ than these stick men and women, robbed of their complexities, their warts and their gaps and inadequacies by their own internal vacuum of fear.
There is literally no profession that can sustain itself, and the practice to which it is dedicated, if that practice is built on the pursuit of perfection, without the room and the opportunity and the gift of accepted tolerated and respected failure. It is how we build “errors, mistakes, stumbles and faults” into our identity, and into our worldview. And those who tolerate and foster the potential for imperfection are worthy of more of our trust that those whose identity cannot tolerate such imperfections.
Let there be no misunderstanding that only oligarchs, leaders, politicians and corporate executives have a unique and exclusive “hold” on the pursuit of the perfection ideal. The “obsession” itself knows no socio-economic, educational, theological, ideological, ethnic nor geographic boundary. However, with the new class of oligarchs that have blossomed like poppies around the world, and the explosion of data, surveillance and performance standards, these people are able to exert more than their fair share of power in all fields of human endeavour. And their new-found wealth and power have, in no way, prepared them for their significantly enhanced responsibilities. As Tracy Chapman, a black song-writer from a very poor background, discovered when she won a scholarship to a prestigious private school, discovered: her classmates had little to no regard and respect for ‘her’ people. They still do not today. Decades ago, in another of many former lives, I learned quickly and painfully, that students in an exclusive private school for boys only (then, it has since ‘gone’ co-ed) demonstrated about as much social conscience as a tree toad.
None of us, thankfully, is free of blemish, imperfection, incompleteness, vulnerability and inconsistency, and even of having diametrically opposing views and attitudes, often simultaneously. It is the pretense of perfection worn by many, both young and not so old, that glistens like fool’s gold and marks the “wearer” as significantly insecure in his or her own skin. And while we are all ‘works in progress’ insofar as seeking and finding our authentic identity, our early experiences have a significant role in our development, and in the development of the strength, and the “brittleness” of our persona or Mask.
There is legitimacy to the notion that a culture’s maturity, integrity and authenticity can be measured by the degree of collective ‘hiding’ behind a persona. Studies of the collective Persona, like the collective unconscious, are normally left to the therapists, and not to the sociologists. Masks are personal qualities, and not normally investigated as a social or cultural phenomenon.
Nevertheless, if ostentatious masks are being worn, unlike the aboriginal tribes where masks have a very different connotation and denotation, there is a significant risk that such an approach to how the “good life” is to be lived will spread especially among the young and the innocent. To facilitate good corporate “public opinion,” for example, scripts are written, rehearsed and delivered, as if the jobs of those workers so “trained” depended on their compliance with delivering the script “with sincerity”. Most of these call centre workers, unfortunately, have not been “schooled” in any of the several approach and theories to professional acting in the theatre. Many public figures actually believe that their “demeanour” including their tone of voice, choice of words, choice of wardrobe and hair style must be “managed” by their professional corporate coaches. Even hand gestures are taught to appear authentically appropriate to the words of their public utterances. Most of such trainees, unfortunately, are neither worthy politicians nor worthy actors. They are mere imitators, in desperate search of public acceptance and accolades and especially endorsements through the ballot box.
As an dramatic example of a different kind and degree of public performance, the recent display of “perfect” performance at the 2018 winter Olympics, by Canadians Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, while winning the pair a merited gold medal, also prompted global speculation that they were lovers in their private lives. Twenty years of disciplined practice, hundreds of spills, bruises, and all of the behind-the-scenes pain have gone into the culmination of this figure-skating dance pair’s world success. They may be great skaters and even better story-tellers, but they never lost the perspective that they were “performing” in a highly demanding athletic competition.
In some way, each of us is, personally in our private lives, and professionally in our workdays, caught in the melee of trying to “look good”….and the artifice, and the strategies and tactics that we use generates billions of dollars in business revenue, and career advancement.
In terms of personal relationships, we are engaged in a tension with our own identity, based fundamentally on the notion (again a Christian and perhaps other faith definitions, that we are ‘not good enough’) to make up for our defects, omissions and fallibilities. So, our families and friends are expected to sift through the images we present, to determine who we really are.
In terms of corporate engagement, with policies and regulations, including the normal compliance sticks and carrots, leadership, along with all the oligarchs, has bought into the operating principle of a lack of trust not only of our individual acts, but also of our judgements, and thereby has sacrificed respect for us, and us for them. By setting the patterns under such principles, they are reaping what they have sown: a workplace that has far more absenteeism, far more withholding of suggestions and recommendations to improve the operation (including cost saving measures), and far more workplace-induced “illness” both real and imagined.
The power structures have effectively vacuumed trust out of the system they are attempting to manage….and then they run around making new rules and new regulations to elicit conformity and compliance, under such guises as “safety and security” and “customer service” when we all know they are engineering profits, savings and padding their resumes in doing so.
We are collectively engaged in the idolatry of contemptuous compliance, given that our voices have been effectively silenced, our bodies bent and our spirits frayed.
And anyone in a position of responsibility and leadership has to not only be aware of the phenomenon, but has also to work within its confines, since, not to comply is to render one obsolete, dismissable and redundant.
We have turned the “pursuit of perfection,” a most honourable and worthy pursuit in the production of airplanes, autos and digital technology, into a trap of management. Humans are not and will not become compliant with such a straight jacket, and no management theorist, psychologist, psychiatrist or oligarch is going to change that truth. We are not machines, robots, or even “buck privates” in the armies of the oligarchs. And it is not only based on our level of education, experience and rehearsed expertise and skills that such a declaration is uttered. We are each of us much more than our degrees, skills, experience…we are imbued with a spirit and psyche that sees beyond the empirical, beyond the sticks and the carrots, beyond the power struggles and controls dramas that are inflicted upon us.
And unless and until that messy truth becomes the cornerstone of personal and professional relationships, we will continue to waste billions chasing our individual and collective tails, pursuing the unattainable mask of perfection, and sacrificing our true identity, and the opportunity to meet, greet and welcome others who, themselves, are also play acting.