We use the word ‘perfect’ a lot and for the most part in an entirely well-intentioned way. We use it to focus our desire for the best of the things we enjoy most or which carry great importance. We try to brew the perfect cup of tea, we try to spend a perfect afternoon with a loved one, we try to perfect our skills, we try to get a perfect score on the test. The desire for ‘perfect’ is well-intentioned because it speaks to our desire for the best possible outcome but we have to be wary about using an impossible theoretical ideal as a defining measurement for achievement and success.
Yes, it is possible to get a ‘perfect’ score on a test assuming the test is set and quantified requiring knowledge which is genuinely accessible. The criteria for what is required to obtain one hundred percent of the possible marks needs to be firmly set and clearly communicated and the person taking the test must have legitimate access to the necessary knowledge or skills. Then achieving a ‘perfect’ score is a valid possibility.
While the use of the word ‘perfect’ is technically valid in this case it is, ironically, not one hundred percent accurate. The maximum score has certainly been achieved. All the questions asked were answered correctly, all the requirements for earning marks were met, but using the term ‘perfect’ implies more than simply all the responses were right. It infers there was absolutely nothing wrong with it, at all.
Test out the difference in the feeling. Say to yourself — “I got 100% on my math test.”
No say — “I got a perfect score on my math test.”
They sound very similar but do not feel the same. They speak to very different tones, scales, and potential ramifications. One hundred percent correct denotes successfully meeting all the set criteria, a laudable achievement in a singular situation. But that is not the same thing as there being nothing wrong with it at all. ‘Perfect’ implies the result would continue to stand as such regardless of any other criteria which might be brought to bear, a sense of mastery, and elevates both the result and the achiever to a more expert and infallible level.
Being able to get it right is a very different image than being unable to get it wrong. A result being ‘perfect’ denotes an unassailable immunity to any additional or different criteria and at the real world level we know that just isn’t feasible. What if the criteria were shifted to include handwriting or performance time or attitude towards the examiner or posture while taking the exam…
We could expand the list indefinitely and each new metric not only broadens the range of things to be graded it increases the impossibility of being one hundred percent correct on all of them. Using ‘perfect’ to describe the result of an arbitrarily constructed and constrained challenge is using a broad and sweeping term to describe a narrow and particular thing.
‘Perfect’ is a theoretical ideal. And like all theoretical ideals it is not only far broader in implication than any one singular result it is also, and far more dangerously, immensely subjective. Just like ideals of beauty, humor, art, strength, courage, or any other number of concepts we use to compare or quantify our lives and actions it is inherently and enormously dependent upon our particular perspective.
Take beauty for example. Something which exemplifies the absolute epitome of beauty for one person could be almost repugnant to the next. How we construct and develop our ideals is heavily guided by our own personal preferences but is also powerfully influenced by the cultural norms, standards, and expectations we are surrounded with.
If something is subjective it can still provide powerful inspiration but it makes for a lousy definition. It is impossible to definitively claim successful achievement of something when regarded through someone else’s definition of that something we might have failed entirely.
This is why ideals make for great targets but terrible goals. A target is something we aim for, strive for, it gives an aspiration at which we can guide and focus our efforts and energies. A goal is something we set out to achieve, something we plan and strategize for, all under the assumption or even expectation we will be able to achieve and obtain it. Goals have a definable end point which can be, and often are, entirely personal requiring no objective definition.
“I want to lose 20 pounds” is a goal. It has a specific desired result the approach to which can be planned, strategized, and executed in specific and measurable ways. Whether I achieve it or not the definitive metric doesn’t change. “I want to be happy with my body” is also a goal, albeit a bit broader and more amorphous one. If I am able to set down exactly what criteria I would need to meet in order to feel happy about my body it can become a specific and measurable goal I can work towards and potentially achieve. I may or may not be entirely correct about the metrics I choose and may find that achieving them doesn’t bring me the happiness I was hoping for but fully accurate or not the criteria are still specific measurable things I can achieve.
“I want to have the perfect body” is not a goal. It can’t be a goal because it is using an external subjective ideal as a starting point. Perfect according to whom? We might even have a specific image in mind of what a perfect body is, say a picture of a fitness model, but starting from an external ideal allows a very real chance the necessary criteria could be completely incompatible and impossible for us. The model may have the kind of physique we aspire to but are they a compatible comparison to our own physiology. Age, body type, metabolism, fitness history, lifestyle, personal and professional time and energy demands, there are any number of extremely important variables which no amount of planning or strategizing can cancel out or supersede.
A 50 year old with no history of athletic running, a full-time office career, and two children will never be able to obtain the same physique as the 20 something featured in the runner’s magazine who has been running for years and works in the fitness industry. In those rare instances where someone is able to make such a dramatic change in their health and physique it requires a massive and all-encompassing overhaul of their lives and lifestyle to devote far more time, energy, and effort focused purely on fitness than the model in the picture ever has.
Using such an image as inspiration to help energize us as we work towards the greater level of fitness we aspire to can be immensely helpful, striving towards an ideal can empower and inspire us to push beyond the known bounds of our comfort zones and limitations to grow and better ourselves. But treating that ideal as some sort of box we are supposedly going to check, and must in order to be happy, can be extremely hazardous.
Striving towards an ideal we understand can never fully be achieved can inspire us to exceed and expand our limitations. Treating an ideal as a definitive requirement for success sets us up for self-condemnation as not only does it leave no room for intermediary or cumulative successes it locks our happiness behind a barrier we will never be able to cross. If ‘perfect’ is the only mark of success then everything else is automatically failure and remains so until ‘perfect’ is achieved and we are denied any happiness or sense of satisfaction until it has.
Google ‘psychological effects of failure’ and you will find lists and lists of research demonstrating the deteriorating impact on mental, emotional, and physical health constant or repetitive failure can have making it clear how self-damaging it can be to set ourselves up with unreachable expectations.
And if by some miracle we actually manage to achieve the image of ‘perfect’ we were striving for the happiness and satisfaction invariably proves mystifyingly fleeting. No sooner have we achieved it than we are altering and redefining ‘perfect’ to place it once more out of our reach.
Because that is how ideals work, they are meant to be beyond our reach. That is how they function. At the risk of using a grisly example it is like the racing dogs who not only don’t know what to do with the rabbit should they ever catch it but their drive to race is also undone.
Ideals are targets, they are meant to be striven for not actually obtained. ‘Perfect’ is an excellent, and all too often misused, example. Substitute the above example of wanting the ‘perfect body’ with wanting the ‘perfect relationship’ or the ‘perfect job’ or one of the most pernicious cultural quagmires trying to engineer the ‘perfect wedding day’. Setting an ideal as a required achievement not only traps us into an unwinnable and ultimately self-condemning cycle it also sets the assumption that the expected payoff of happiness will be all-encompassing and permanently satisfying.
Using ideals to guide and inspire our efforts can be empowering and incredibly beneficial. But when it comes to forming the actual goals we are aiming for we need to make sure those are specific, measurable, and determined by our own internal and understood aspirations. ‘Perfect’ is not a form of measurement. Rather than trying for the ‘perfect day’ set your sights of having the ‘best day possible’.
By aiming towards ‘perfect’ we can achieve ‘better’. And ‘better’ we can build upon to reach the next ‘better’ and the next one after that.