Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Realistic Ideals

After putting an entire week of effort into it, my electronics project was still no more than a nest of wires and circuit boards. This was an extra-credit assignment for school, to build a specialized temperature controller, and I was the only student attempting to complete it. This created a dilemma; I was losing valuable time for other classes, but I felt like my lack of success was a personal reflection of incompetence. So, I kept at it. Finally one evening I found the problem, and with a few adjustments it was working better than I had even hoped. I was elated. I printed a report of the sensor results, and handed it to a classmate. With expressionless face, he glanced over the graphs and said, "What's this?" pointing to a small blip on one of the readouts. I was incredulous. "I don't know; maybe a fly landed on the sensor! The point is, it works!" I said. He had watched me struggle all week, so he should understand how monumental this was, I thought.  After studying my frown, he finally realized how unsympathetic he was being, and offered his congratulations. But my friend demonstrated a common aspect of human nature: the more perfect a thing is, the more we focus on its imperfections. It's like walking past a polished sports car, but only noticing a squashed bug on the windshield.

It's easy to look at something and imagine what would make it better. This is how improvements are made, why technology is more advanced now than they used to be. But there's a problem with criticizing a thing simply because it's not perfect, when it might actually be good enough for its purpose. As a perfectionist I make this mistake way too often, and as a result, miss out on many good things. Ice cream is a serious matter to me. I much prefer the kind of classic, deep-frozen, American ice cream that leaves my arm sore after scooping it from the tub. But I decided my snobbery had gone too far when, standing in Laguna Beach at sunset, eating gelato with friends, I caught myself thinking, “This is soft-serve… I wish we were at the 31 Flavors in San Bernardino.” I think people who enjoy life the most tend to focus on the aspects they enjoy, without being distracted by the flaws.

It's most damaging when we use this idealistic thinking to judge ourselves and other people. It's a terrible thing to feel like you're never good enough, or that goals move out of reach as you approach them. I've found that my truest friends are those who help me see my potential, without judging me for being less than that. They also affirm me as I slowly become a better version of myself. In other words, they accept and love me at every moment, just the way I am. I know, this is starting to sound like something Mister Rogers would say, but that's because, essentially, it is something he said. The amazing thing is, this unconditional acceptance actually inspires confidence, and allows me to grow as a person.

The issue here might be that perfectionism leads to dissatisfaction, when alternatively, being content actually creates more opportunities.  It may be helpful to think of perfection as a direction, like east or west. It’s meaningless to say, “I’m going to east,” or “Next week I’ll be at west.”  Perfection could be like that; not a destination, just a point on the compass. This thought makes me feel a lot better, because it shifts my focus from what I haven’t accomplished, to what I’m actually doing at the moment. Since perfection can never be reached, the journey of improvement is all I have, so I may as well enjoy each point along the way. In other words, there’s always room for improvement, but there’s nothing wrong with the way things are.

I’m still learning to accept what I have, whether it’s a skill or an object; using it rather than waiting for the epitome of it come along. If I had given up on that temperature sensor when it didn't work right away, I would have guaranteed it’s failure. The only way I got it to work was by continuing to make progress with an imperfect system until I had fixed enough problems. This is the only way I can move forward. If my ideal conditions must be met before I can take the next step, I remain totally stalled, waiting for the impossible to materialize. But when I use the pieces I already have, putting them together in lots of different ways, new possibilities emerge.

That extra-credit electronics project taught me more than how to wire up a temperature sensor.  When I psych myself into releasing my death-grip on perfection, and just work on things, I end up with even better results than I imagined.

What's could you be more realistic about?