Friday, August 21, 2015

Perfectionism and all its faults

I was reading an interview with the CEO of an up-and-coming American company in Forbes magazine this week (as you do when your son has just started to work for them) and it made me think.

The CEO said this:

“Even of the things we’ve done thus far, they’re only a tenth as good as they should be.”

and also

“What we talk about internally is continual improvement and perpetual dissatisfaction.”

And the two comments sounded exactly how I feel about my garden. They also made me feel uncomfortable, because I got an insight into how I must come across to Dave, who finds my perfectionism challenging, and sometimes unbearable.

Even this week we touched on the subject when he said how much he hates painting (as in decorating), and I said the pleasure in painting is in trying to do it perfectly, and he said: “I’m not interested in perfection.”

A long time ago I wrote a piece for the Times about perfection. I just read it again and decided it stands the test of time, so I’m posting it below.

But before that, here is an imperfect photo of two pieces of Dave’s stained glass, to show you how his scorn of perfectionism never dents the fabulousness of the things he makes:

sept 2011 052

The idea of perfection

Reading this year’s Orange Prize winner The Idea of Perfection has made me consider the thorniness of liking things just so. I loved the book, but in my Picador copy there were no quotation marks used to enclose the direct speech. And I hated that.

Popular culture abounds with characters with fine discrimination, or obsessive pickiness, depending on your point of view. Remember Meg Ryan as Sally in When Harry Met Sally ? “I’d like apple pie a la mode. But I’d like the pie heated and I don’t want the ice cream on top I want it on the side. And I’d like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it’s real. If it’s out of a can, then nothing.” You could say she was picky.

But if there were a team event for pickiness in the Olympics, my family would get the Gold medal. At fifteen my brother was ironing his own shirts, because my mother didn’t do it well enough. Now if you wash up for him he will tell you to turn the teaspoons upside down on the draining board so that they drain efficiently. I am picky about everything. So picky that last time I had breakfast in bed, my husband - who can never remember precisely what I like, but who wanted me to enjoy the treat - brought me three different mugs for my tea, three spreads, and three different types of jam. My father, a Grand Master of pickiness, will spurn every kipper that isn’t from Craster. But if you send him one from that blessed haven you give him exquisite pleasure, and he will be sweet for days.

At least you can be sure of giving great pleasure to high maintenance types if you make the effort and get it right. Those people who say “I’m easy,” or “I don’t mind,” can be impossible to please. How can you possibly know how to delight those colourless children who come round to tea, and who “don’t mind” whether they have fish fingers or pizza or baked beans on toast ?

Pickiness becomes truly unbearable, though, when it extends to a delusion that other people want to know your opinion about everything on every occasion even when you haven’t been asked. This week I am dreading my father coming to stay, and casting his critical eye over my treasured garden, because I know he will make derogatory comments about how I have pruned the blackcurrants or let blackspot infest my roses. When someone picks at an expression of your creativity, that’s when it hurts the most.

So if someone actually asks your opinion about something which they care deeply, and in which you can see an imperfection, what do you tell them ? If they have just spent three months stitching a tapestry and they ask you if you think that it matters that they ran out of blue and had to use another dye lot and can you see the difference, and does it matter ? If you can, and it does, what do you say ?

When planting our new garden my husband asked exactly where I wanted him to place the silver birch tree, so I marked the spot in the ground with a stick. “We work to fine tolerances here,” he said. When I viewed the tree later from the kitchen, I thought it was nine inches too far to the right, but I bit my tongue and said nothing. I was rewarded for this uncharacteristic forbearance when in the evening he looked through the window and decided that the tree needed moving, about nine inches to the left. Such miracles are rare.

I know I’m difficult. But being the picker can be just as uncomfortable as being the pickee. It is not easy when someone you love has just sanded and varnished a wooden floor for you, and every time you sit down on the sofa you notice a white paint stain under the varnish.

I do find it helps to remind myself that in some cultures craftsmen deliberately include a mistake in their work, because only God can create things perfect. It also helps to read the motto my husband gave me “Perfection is our aim. We must learn to tolerate excellence.”

© Sue Hepworth/Times newspapers 2001

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