Waiting for Perfection

By , February 5, 2012

“One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon—instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.”

—Dale Carnegie

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve strived for perfection in many ways, most of them the wrong ones. I actually pulled a “D” in junior high shop class—a disaster for an otherwise straight A student.

We were building step stools. I built mine well, but I got caught up in trying to put a finish on it. I worked on it as I would a piece of fine furniture, trying to give it a mirror-like surface. As a result, I never completed the project, and earned the lowest grade short of complete failure. About a month after receiving that grade, I suddenly realized the awful truth: had I achieved the finish I desired, it would be completely destroyed the very first time someone used the stool for its intended purpose!

Lesson learned.

A friend who helped build our sailboat, Selkie, encouraged our efforts by teaching us about perfection. He stressed the difference between Platonic perfection and Aristotelian perfection. As he explained it (and, I think I’m getting this right—correct me if I’ve confused the two) Plato believed in perfection as an absolute ideal—a state that could never be reached in the real world. Aristotle saw perfection as that which falls short of ideal, yet can be achieved. In short, Plato might work for years to build a mathematically and aesthetically perfect sailboat, while Aristotle would be happy with a prime boatbuilder’s axiom: “If it looks right, it is right.”

I’m not a big fan of the Classic philosophers. I feel that we would live in a far more enlightened world if western society had not canonized these deep thinking, yet ultimately deeply silly men. Even so, remembering their differing views of perfection have helped us accomplish far more in life than we would if I had held true to my desire to achieve ultimate perfection.

These lessons, which embody Mr. Carnegie’s views above, have allowed us to create the life we live today. Had we held out for perfection, our first view of the homestead would have led us to pass on it. If we expected perfection of ourselves, we would have since given up on our efforts here. We’ve done well, but there’s much to be done—so much that should be done before the homestead is perfect.

The plain fact is, that perfection will never come. That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to work toward it. It does mean that as we do so, we appreciate, even revel in what we have.

Many people follow this blog because they plan to live like we do someday. Start now! Don’t wait for the perfect (Platonic) situation, make what you have perfect (Aristotelian) as soon as you can.

For inspiration on this, I recommend Jenna Woginrich’s book, Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Lifeb, which we review here.

Mr. Carnegie’s quote appeals to me on a lot of different levels. See this essay I wrote some time ago, on a very similar theme.

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in the book, Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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