Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.
-- Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
So every day I try to do something imperfect, something truly half-ass.
Don’t laugh. It’s not easy.
Because if I leave a thing half done, formless, mediocre, not what it might have been, I hear the voice that says, You could have done better.
The voice doesn’t stop there. You could have done better, and you didn’t. You’re lazy, and if you go on like this you won’t amount to anything. You have limitless potential. You could do anything you want, achieve anything your heart desires. But look where you are, just getting by, just better than average, and that’s not good enough. Do you want to be a – a truck-driver when you grow up?
One could do a lot worse than grow up to be a truck-driver. Two of them in their big rig rescued my daughter in a blizzard. A truck-driver is a small businessman; he makes payments on a massive hunk of capital. Or perhaps he is a skilled employee; a corporation trusts him with that capital. Either way, he looks pretty solid. How would I, a journeyman of genteelly poor professions, look down on such a person?
Though the parable was contaminated with class prejudice, its meaning shone through. If anything went wrong, or even not quite right, it was my fault, because last week or last year I hadn’t worked hard. Good is never good enough. Don’t do the things that are easy for you, get to work on the things that are painful and difficult. Always work harder, because you never know when your slacking off will exact its penalty. Thirty years from now you’ll come a cropper because you slacked off today. And you’ll be sorry.
Don’t ever tell a kid he can do “whatever he wants.” It’s a lie. God made me for some tasks, unmade me for others, and I’m supposed to learn the difference. I cannot be a concert pianist or a shortstop, no matter how hard I might “work at it.” I am not a scholar, though I was taught to impersonate one. What was I to become? I’m still working on that question, perhaps because I fell behind in the research.
A popular personality test says I am an “Intuitive Introvert.” “Introvert” means that I know my mind before I speak, not afterwards. “Intuitive” means that I have no study skills, I get it or I don’t. For me there is no process of learning, only god willing a flash of lightning.
So “studying hard” is a kind of fakery, a self-deception and pretense, not the angel’s but the devil’s work. Ah, my wasted youth! I am not one of those who can catalogue the trees until a forest is deduced. Why did I spend so much time studying? O that I had run with the wrong crowd, skipped my classes, lost my virtue, broken hearts (theirs and mine), paid my dues in dissipation and in vice! On my deathbed I shall not wish that I had taken better notes.
In my seventh decade I’m beginning to catch on. The Calvinism of Hard Work is not a godly doctrine, but a dirty trick that Satan plays on the upwardly mobile who fear, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, to fall. Old Nick wraps damnation in a tissue of sulfurous virtue, and we are lured off the rails of our destiny to pick up this pretty bauble of drudgery. Stop the world, I’m going too far too fast, having too much fun! I should be doing heavy labor, pushing that great rock up yonder hill.
The thing that’s really hard to do, and once done leaves you tired and stupid – that’s probably not what you ought to be doing. But when you are called to a place, and you are prized for what you never thought were skills, and they are glad you’re there, doing only what is natural to you – in the heart’s silence where no complaint is heard, that is God’s voice, trying to teach you something. This is where you’re supposed to be. This is your talent, knucklehead, live with it. It’s what I fashioned you for. Enjoy. That is your mitzvah.
When the Siren of Unlimited Potential sings, stop your ears against her bourgeois ballad. We do not make ourselves. We were each of us created. For each of us, there is a place we’re supposed to be. To be in any other place, particularly if we’re proud of ourselves for being there, is impiety. “I’m really a song-writer,” you say, “but instead I make a good living lying about money.” Well then, to blazes with you.
Broadway sentiment aside, Quixote was delusional. He wasn’t really supposed to be tilting at windmills. He was supposed to be doing the work of a good man – loving kindness, acting justly, walking humbly. And I’m not supposed to do six impossible things before breakfast. If what I do easily isn’t good enough for you, then to hell with it, and with you. In this time of life, I go where I’m wanted. I do what I can. Because the thing I can do, breathing easily and without noticing my skill – that’s my talent, the gift I am supposed to pass on to you before I lose it.
I was taught to scan the horizon for the thing most painful to do, and then do that. Always getting it right is very difficult, and that’s what I was taught to do. Perfectionists have their uses: they get a lot of things right. So if you want a particular thing done exactly right – if everything depends on it – you should call up a perfectionist. But you may not want to be around while he’s working. Or afterward.
If at the end of the day I’m thinking, I really blew that off, I didn’t concentrate, I didn’t get to the essence, I didn’t finish, I didn’t wrap up all those loose ends – then I close up shop and thank the Lord that I’ve located my daily imperfection. Yes, it’s a mess, I’ll clean it up tomorrow. Or better yet, let someone else clean it up. Who died and left me the Messiah?
They’ll thank you for your imperfection. There’s no one more insufferable than the one who leaves no messes.