Thursday, February 28, 2019

To Strive, To Seek, To Find, And Not To Yield

     Did you recognize the title line? Are you familiar with the mighty poem it concludes? It can be found here. If you’re unfamiliar with it, please take a few minutes to read and savor it before continuing on here.

     Ulysses – Odysseus in the Greek versions of the two relevant myths – was the king of Ithaca, one of the great men of Greece who set off, along with many other Greek heroes and soldiers, to reclaim Helen, queen of Sparta and wife of King Menelaus, from Paris of Troy. Unlike many others who participated in that conflict, narrated in Homer’s Iliad, Ulysses survived to return to his home, his queen, and his throne. However, his return voyage was not without adventures, about which we read in the Odyssey.

     Tennyson’s poem Ulysses speaks of the mythical hero later in life, when his great deeds are supposedly past and done. But great men don’t take kindly to the suggestion that their days of greatness are behind them. Indeed, one of the tests of greatness is endurance: to go further than before; to try new paths and chart new seas; never to accept stasis, or irrelevance.

     A truly great man’s life is an unbroken series of self-betterments: to go further than before, to do better than before, and always “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

     “Not to yield to what?” I hear you cry. That, Gentle Reader, is the meat of this essay.

     Along with these essays I write fiction, as you’re surely aware. It takes me about a year to produce a novel. The length of that interval displeases some of my fiction readers. They want more and faster. In an ideal world I’d oblige them – nothing so cheers a writer as an expressed hunger for more of what he writes – but this is not that world. It takes me a great deal of time and effort to produce novels that meet my standards, and I’d bet a dollar to a doughnut that were I to hurry the process, the very readers who clamor for more of my crap would turn to asking “Did you really write this, Fran? It doesn’t seem up to your usual standard.”

     Contemplate, I entreat you, the last three words above. “Your usual standard” – meaning my usual standard – was set by me. No one else has the authority to do so. To satisfy me, what I write must meet that standard. I’m sufficiently a perfectionist not to release anything that strikes me as sub-par, not meeting the standard my earlier works have set and met.

     My standards are a component of my personality: what I regard as appropriate to my abilities and my record of achievement. I cannot water them down...and believe me, at times the temptation has been strong.

     Are there costs attached to a high standard? Of course. The higher and more exacting a standard one sets for oneself, the longer and harder one must labor to meet it. The consumption of a great amount of time to produce a single item also involves an opportunity cost: the other things one might have produced in that time do not exist. This is practically a tautology.

     High or low, we all set standards for our undertakings. Those standards determine when our works are finished. Nothing else does – or can.

     I have a particular sensitivity to the misuse of words. When I detect it, I feel compelled to respond, sometimes with an acerbity that might better have been restrained.

     Consider the word perfect. What does it mean? What, therefore, does it mean to be a perfectionist?

     According to my Webster’s Unabridged, to perfect a thing is to complete it:

     perfect: v, to bring to completion; to finish.

     That does not sound – to me, at least – like an objectionable thing. We want our efforts to be finished, to go to completion, and therefore to be perfect, and are unhappy when their path to that is truncated. But what does it mean to say that a thing is finished, complete? Doesn’t that mean that it meets the standard set for it a priori? So the relevant question about perfection is: For specified item or undertaking X, what is the applicable standard? Who set it, did he have the authority to do so, and is there a way to determine when the standard has been met?

     Once we have determined that the standard for item X was set by one who had the authority to do so, and that it was relevant to the sort of thing X is intended to be, all that matters is conforming to its dictates. If X conforms in all particulars to the standard for it, then it is perfect. Moreover, its maker has achieved perfection in the only sense that pertains to enterprises under the veil of Time.

     This piece was triggered by Sarah Hoyt’s diatribe against “perfectionism:”

     Perfectionism should be classified as a disability.

     It has blighted more lives than autism, destroyed more potential work than brain damage, stopped more achievement than miss-education. It can devour entire civilizations, and arguably has....

     If you’re an artist or even just a “creator” or worker: a writer, an artist, a programmer, a cook, holy heck, even a house cleaner, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

     There’s this odd tendency to be more dissatisfied with our work the better we do and then to decide not to do things because, what the heck, it will never be good enough.

     Forgive me, Sarah, but you’ve hared off after a phantasm, which might serve to explain your own state of “being permanently trapped in insecurity.” You have failed to understand the meaning of perfection and therefore the variety of perfectionism appropriate to an artist or craftsman – which means just about everyone who ever undertakes to do anything.

     A perfect thing meets the standard set for it. The perfectionist, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, vows “not to yield.” He is determined to meet his self-defined standards. He seeks and finds imperfections, and corrects them, but always with reference to that aforementioned standard. Does he accept that he’s fallible – that he might miss something? Of course. That has nothing to do with his commitment to perfection, which is an ideal to be striven toward.

     My entire life I have striven for perfection: in mathematics, in software, and in fiction. Perhaps I’ve achieved it on occasion; perhaps not. The ideal has not paralyzed me, as Sarah has suggested:

     There’s this odd tendency to be more dissatisfied with our work the better we do and then to decide not to do things because, what the heck, it will never be good enough.

     The way it blights lives is…interesting. As in I’ve seen perfectionists utterly ruin themselves by doing nothing. Oh, you want to write/create/climb your work ladder? But you look at your work and you know you’re not good enough because you can see flaws, so why even try. And then you do nothing.

     That’s not perfectionism; that’s the behavior of the loser, he who cannot believe in himself and his powers, and surrenders to despair.

     Perfection is achievable when the standard set for the undertaking in question is clear and unambiguous. He who sets his own standards has no excuse for falling short of them, no matter how high he set the bar. I say that even though I know several of my most cherished works contain flaws, for when they’re drawn to my attention, guess what? I fix them. For the striving for perfection is not a thing that ends. In some cases it continues right up to death.

     It is vital, perhaps even civilizationally critical, that we understand perfection as it should be understood, and that we make it our pole star. There was a sign hung over the office in which I worked that asked two questions:

  • Are you doing the right thing?
  • Are you doing the thing right?

     Those are vital questions regardless of one’s specific enterprise. They compel you to be clear of mind about what you intend to produce, and to understand as completely as possible what’s required of it. And unlike most generalizations, they do apply validly to many things.

     Ask the wrong question and you’ll get a useless answer every time. “Is this perfect?” according to an irrelevant or an under-defined standard is always a wrong question, the sort that drains the meaning from the quite useful word perfect. Quoth Sarah once more:

You don’t know what is perfect either.

     Wrong, dear. It’s you who don’t know. I do know. Regardless of past failures, and of the certainty of future failures, I strive, I seek, and I find...and win, lose, or draw, I do not yield.

     May God bless and keep you all.


Linda Fox said...

Generally, I agree with you. But not here.

Yes, a work should meet your own standards. And, if a flaw (let us say - a significant flaw) is pointed out, yeah, we should fix it - IF possible.

However. In life, few things are absolutely perfect. Sometimes, the job requires that the product be missing some less essential element (as in software) - those things that would be NICE to have, but the time limits don't permit it.

Sometimes, battles are won by the less perfectly prepared, but bold and audacious.

Sometimes, a particular story is the best you can deliver - at that point in your development as a writer.

Now, for the perfectionists, that is reason to tank the whole thing. Because they cannot write perfectly, they never finish.

I came from the tradition of news. I worked on college papers, and later blogged daily. There's the old rule: if it doesn't hit the street today, it's not news.

Better an imperfect story, than a late one.

So, my perspective is different. I write a LOT - 4 different blogs, fiction, and now, non-fiction. I'm not you, whose work is highly polished and takes some time to do it right.

I'm Linda. I sometimes concentrate more on getting it out to the public than about perfection. My syntax is sometimes sloppy, as is my formatting.

I'm more OK with imperfection. I'm imperfect, as a person. I'm certainly no saint. I make mistakes.

But, that's what works for me. If I didn't publish until my work was perfect (as perfect as yours), I would never have published at all.

I am getting better, just as I did as a reporter - the more you do something, the better and faster you get at it. The first full-length book I bring out will NOT be perfect. But, it will be the best I can do, at that time.

I think that is the essence of what Sarah was communicating. That too many people are shooting for the quality of an author with many books, rather than the best they can do NOW.

Dystopic said...

So I read your post. Then I read Sarah's. Then I read yours again.

I am convinced you're talking about slightly different things, though it is, as you often point out, a problem of slippery definitions.

Perhaps we can define it thusly: there are two types of perfection. RELATIVE perfection - that is, perfection as you describe here, the satisfaction of some standard of quality. And ABSOLUTE perfection, which is the purview of God alone.

I will refer back to my evil stepmother for an example. She was fond of using absolute perfection as a tool of measurement. If I cleaned the bathroom, for instance, but a single speck of dust was overlooked, she would claim I did not, in fact, clean the bathroom. It was not *absolutely* perfect. What Sarah is talking about is a similar, but internalized, demand of perfection. As if she has a clone of my stepmother in her head saying "that is not absolutely perfect."

This is how Socialists 'hack' Rightist conceptions of morality. There is one person who didn't get enough to eat, therefore nationalize the entire economy and ban all the guns, because absolute imperfection. They are my stepmother writ large.

What you describe is relative to a realistic standard. I set standard X for myself, and upon meeting X, I may claim my job complete and perfect, relative to the agreed upon standard. So long as the standards are reasonable for (absolutely) imperfect man, that is good and well.

One thing I agree with you on here is that if Sarah does have an internalized evil stepmother, so to speak, that is detriment to her. I empathize with her on this, though, because for the longest time, I likewise had this internal demon to wrestle with. In some ways, I still do - though I have since learned to ignore it/turn it off when it gets out of hand.