In Pursuit of Perfection

Photo by Alice Popkorn

Do you remember that classic answer to the interview question: what is your biggest flaw? The answer that still does the rounds and is intended to impress: I’m a perfectionist.

Although, perfection is not a goal I chase nowadays. It has taken years to understand that perfection takes a toll. It breaks backs and spirits. The sheen of perfection is neither real nor a blessing. Perfection doesn’t value flaws. It neglects to honour the importance of doing your best, in spite of the outcome. It values the end finale with the flourish and accolades, rather than the little inspirations along the way, the twists and turns and trips and dips that open our eyes.

Perfection isn’t just about the approach to our work. It’s about how we live our lives. How messy we are willing to be. How human. How vulnerable and soft and open. 

I remember the days of stopping by the sixth form toilets to check an oily sheen hadn’t broken through the dusting of baby powder on my face and that my lips were still slick with pink vaseline. I remember looking at the other girls and seeing who they were inside. I was conscious of who looked beautiful even in our ghastly uniform, who smiled with a perfect set of whites and who was confident enough not to tug at the hemline of our netball skirts. I clocked it all: who felt safe to be around, who couldn’t have cared less about other people’s perceptions, who wore their outer selves like battlefield armour or a beautiful shop mannequin.

Photo by Jeffrey

We do it throughout our lives, a pecking order underscored by social structures, even when we try to unlearn it. An ordering and reordering of who is popular, clever, successful, selfish, kind, loved, pretty, ambitious, a wallflower, a flirt, open-hearted, grieving, or down on their luck. It’s an unconscious gathering of information that seeps into our psyche and informs how we act and react to those around us. 

The narratives we create about other people aren’t always true, just like their reciprocal stories about us. How can we know the reality of even those closest to us? Our experiences and thought processes are too complex to be able to distill reliably. And oh, the joy when those rare conversations do happen: the bloom of trust, an unpeeling of protective cocoons, conversations that propel friends and lovers to the same plane of consciousness as if by magic. When you can read each other’s thoughts and makes leaps closer to each other’s point of views. 

There is beauty in that. 

Conversations by candlelight can do that. Conversations in the rain or on long drives. On its best days, social media can even facilitate it between strangers. On its worst days, however, social media chips away at self-confidence. It bolsters narcissists and feeds the green-eyed monster. How grateful I am not to have grown up in a world of selfies and filters, dropped hips and pouty lips. 

And yet. 

I look with curiosity at the women and girls who know how to pose and how to do a smoky eye and a flawless base. I, too, delete pictures on my phone that aren’t flattering and then experience momentary regret for the curated photo gallery that doesn’t reflect the messy beauty of life, the sleep deprived nights raising our babies, the peaks and troughs of human emotions, the days which you crawl through on your knees as well as the ones on which you soar. 

Photo by Alice Popkorn

On the days when I am not whole enough to withstand the siren call of perfection, I won’t fall into the trap door of self-loathing, and neither should you. I’ll hold my head high and pledge to write words even when they seem to me to be the staccato stuttering of a broken engine. I’ll be grateful for those who love me despite my many flaws. Grateful for eulogies–when the time comes–that don’t whitewash who I was, that can draw on the full colour palette that makes up my personality, from the deepest black to the vibrant yellows and the blues in between. 

Our stories are never finished and never perfect.

Thank goodness for that. 

4 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Perfection

  1. You’ve given me much food for thought again, Nillu. I tend to fall into the perfection trap, mainly involving projects I’ve undertaken. Many of them involve home repair and renovation, and the repair and restoration of vintage electronics (like the tube -valve- audio equipment that’s become something of a passion with me. I’ve noticed that a compulsive need for perfection leaves me feeling drained as much as elated, as I realize that the amount of mental energy and work I’ve put into the project comes nowhere near compensating for the time I spent on it, leading to a feeling of “OK, it’s perfect. Now what? Shouldn’t I be getting a bigger payoff?”

    Not to mention the fact that the pursuit of perfection tends to make us oblivious to more important issues in our lives, and perhaps that’s one reason we chase it. Some years ago I worked in an office with a young woman who was always perfectly turned out. Her hair, makeup, nails, clothing – everything really- was always “perfect”. We used to joke behind her back that she was a living Barbie Doll, or a robot with a hidden door in her back for batteries. Then one day someone said “I really worry about her. Sometimes I think she’s just one step away from being found in her garage with her car engine running.” After that, I made an effort to see beyond the surface sheen. As I got to know her a bit, I found that she was in reality a vulnerable and insecure young woman who had been raised by supremely controlling parents to equate her self-worth with perfection in every respect, and that trying to achieve it was her only defense against the nagging voice in her head that told her that she couldn’t ever be good enough.

    I think that one of the reasons I love dogs is because their less complicated brains let them dwell purely in the moment and fully experience just living. I had a beloved dog named Daphne years ago who opened my eyes to the power of simple joys. One day I noticed her rolling in the newly-cut lawn, just self-indulgently soaking up its cool dampness and smell. She hadn’t a worry in the world. No concerns about what she should be doing with the time, no regret over any lost opportunities, and no concern that the moment would end and she’d be thrust back into “real life”. Just simple and complete abandonment to the headiness of the moment.

    Please excuse this lengthy response to your blog, Nillu, but you’ve inspired me yet again. I dream of meeting you and talking with you face-to-face one day.


    1. So lovely to have you here, George. I wonder if being cogs in the capitallist system teaches us that there must always be a pay off or whether it is inherently human to expect one. Lately, our 7yo has been complimenting me then immediately asking for screen time or pudding. It’s hard to teach him that being overtly transactional doesn’t sit well, especially when all he is thinking about is ice cream!

      I can see how perfectionism is a mask. How your Barbie Doll colleague hid her vulnerability and how her parents might have thought they were teaching her to be strong. We can only hope that someone sees us for who we are when it counts and when we need it.

      Daphne sounds like a wonderful dog. I love dogs for that too. Their simplicity and also their foolishness and enthusiasm. Glad the post resonated with you and one day, we will meet, n

  2. Daphne is my Twitter avatar, Nillu! And I think your 7-yr. old is certainly learning how to play the game. He just needs to learn to be a bit more subtle and de-couple the compliment from the request. Maybe let a little time go by before he springs it on you!


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