By Suma Varughese September 2005 The pursuit of perfection will lead us to excellence and release our highest potential. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells his followers: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’. The call to perfection is one of the several yearnings embedded in man’s heart. It is one of our chief motivating factors, driving the sportsman as much as the chef, the artist as much as the craftsman. Even the toddler painstakingly rolling a clay chapatti on her chapatti stand is responding to that ancient drive. And yet when this pursuit is inappropriately applied, it fills up the waiting rooms of therapists and psychiatrists and is one of the chief sources of our misery. The serial, Desperate Housewives, has one such perfectionist. Her perfectly baked and presented muffins and impeccable house only have her family up in arms. Many of us, as the lady in question, make perfection our identity. We slip on this persona like a dress to cover up the untidy chaos within us – dissatisfaction and discontentment, self-doubts and fears. We use this identity to bolster up our sagging self-esteem and to put others down. No wonder no one wants to be around us. I once knew someone who was so particular about her upholstery that going to her house was like being in a minefield. One hardly dare sit lest it create a crease or God forbid, stain. When we use this drive to create an identity or to improve our self-esteem, we also set the stage for constant disappointment and self-condemnation. For the zeal for perfection ensures that we will keep failing. And if perfection is our identity, we will not be able to bear the failures. It will hurt our sense of self, shame and embarrass us, and create negative labels about ourselves. The combination of high self-expectation and poor self-esteem is a lethal one. For the drive to perfection to be healthy and wholesome, we have to develop a sound self-esteem that is based on who we are and not on what we do. Only then will we be free to experiment, innovate, and try again and again as we must if we are committed to perfection. Self-esteem also frees us of the self-consciousness and self-doubt that interferes with our focus and commitment to the task. So what must we do to pursue perfection? Cultivate mindfulness. Perfection is impossible to attain if our minds are not on the job. We cannot dust a room perfectly, park a car perfectly, execute a dance step perfectly or have a perfect bath absentmindedly. Most of us act on auto-control. Everything becomes a habit, a matter of course and once that is so, perfection is doomed. The pursuit of perfection also requires us to constantly strive, to keep bettering ourselves. When we are committed to perfection, it does not matter what we do, whether it is cooking a meal, arranging the newspapers, dusting the dining table or creating a masterpiece. Our attention will be focused on the task and we will try our utmost to make it as good as we can. I have a sister in Kerala who is an artist in the way she dries and folds her saris. First comes the dip into starch water. Then she, along with anyone handy, will hold either side of the two ends of the sari and pull until the sari is stretched taut. It is then gently laid on the bed of pebbles that constitutes her front yard. The hot Kerala sun bores down upon it and dries it in half-an-hour or so. Now crisp like rice paper, she proceeds to fold it with meticulous perfection. So good is she at the art that she simply does not need to iron her saris. A friend of mine confesses to being a dedicated packer. I have seen her at the task and marveled at the sheer artistry of the effort, as packages of various shapes and sizes are patiently juggled until they fit like a jigsaw puzzle. I remember the perfect chutney sandwich I once had at a theater during an interval while seeing a play. A mundane piece of food was made sublime by the attention to detail, the freshness of the bread, the right quantity of butter and the dexterous blending of flavors. It simply does not matter how inconsequential the task is. What matters is how much attention we pay to it and how sincerely we strive to master it. It follows then that perfection is pursued through incremental efforts. The Kaizan approach of constant self-improvement is a succinct formula. Through its application, we compete with no one but ourselves. It does not matter where we are on the scale of perfection, whether at the nadir or at the peak. It only matters that we keep trying. A klutz in pursuit of perfection has a better chance to be an ace ballerina than a competent dancer who is not interested in improving herself. Excellence is won through the pursuit of perfection. As we keep competing with ourselves, as we shave off a second from our running record, or make a chapatti rounder than our earlier attempt, we land on the cutting edge of excellence. We are as good as we can get today. Tomorrow, we will push the envelope once again. Life begins to be truly exciting and even mundane tasks become absorbing when we approach them from this vantage view. Washing dishes, sweeping the floor, cooking, cutting vegetables, making a balance sheet, directing traffic, driving, each of them can help us get that much closer to perfection. That is the point of perfection. Perfection, like other absolute ideals, can never be won, but its pursuit is the most powerful drive we have to move along the path of growth and self-realisation.
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