Nature’s no ordinary artist. It has its own formula to create beauty. From the patterns on pineapple cones to body markings on penguins, from planetary alignments to spiralling galaxies, the universe adopts the golden ratio in its creations. And guess what. The way tree branches form isn’t as random as we might think. It follows the Fibonacci sequence! No wonder this pattern is known as ‘the divine proportion’. Clearly, nature has mastered the art of making things perfect.
Where beauty and perfection are concerned, Leonardo Da Vinci is not very far behind. The 15th-century painter is widely recognised and celebrated for his works ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, ‘The Last Supper’, and ‘The Vitruvian Man’. Da Vinci would actually study the human body to bring about precision in his figure painting so that his subjects would be as life-like as possible. Needless to say, Da Vinci was particular about not displaying his works until he’d achieved very high levels of excellence.
Art historians remark that the Mona Lisa is a highly polished work of art and yet, Da Vinci had never stopped finishing it, right until his death! Perfection was so important to him that he’s known to have said: “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.” There’s a reason this legendary painter’s artistic reputation rests on such a small body of work: he was a perfectionist. According to psychologist Tishya Mahindru Shahani, it’s this compulsive need to produce exemplary work that drives a person to seek perfection. She says, “Perfectionism is a personality trait that makes an individual strive for flawlessness.”
Those who aspire for perfection maintain that practising for the ideal is an effective way to improve themselves constantly. Carnatic musician Mangala Karthik believes singers require such convictions. She says, “It’s all in precision. You either hit a note perfectly or you don’t. So, the standard that my gurus set for me was a glorious aim to aspire for. It motivated me to do better.”
Mangala’s got a point. Perfection can indeed be a very good motivator. In fact, leadership coach Geoff Watts in his Tedx Talk Balance your perfectionism to be creative, observes that people who are perfectionistic are very reliable for their quality and consistency. He believes perfectionism can have its downside, but also that it can be a really good trait. So, perfectionism is certainly not something we want to get rid of, he says.
However, as Watts acknowledges, perfectionism can lead to extreme self-criticism. The pursuit of perfection can make people magnify their own mistakes. It was certainly true of graphic designer Dania Zafar. She confesses she’s a recovering perfectionist. “I was the sort of person who would be haunted by the mistakes I make in my work. I’d be very harsh with myself for any lack in my skills,” she shares. But after she listened to the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about perfection in an interview, Dania began to see merit in the idea that whether or not she becomes “great” at something, she can always get better at it. To her, perfection is all about striving for excellence.
It’s a good thing Dania found a way to balance her idea of perfection. Many like her are very taken with their work and tend to judge themselves very harshly if they don’t meet their own expectations. American novelist Vladimir Nabokov was one such perfectionist. He’d attempted burning an unfinished draft of his novel Lolita because he doubted it was his finest work. But once he managed to overcome those pangs of perfectionistic self-doubt, Nabokov completed the novel and had it published. Lolita received critical acclaim and is, to this day, considered Nabokov’s masterpiece.
Nabokov learnt to manage his perfectionism and produce an exemplary work of literature. Unfortunately, many perfectionists don’t find that balance. They lean towards the extreme side, and therefore, suffer from procrastination, obsession, even depression. However, psychiatrist Sherri Melrose makes a case for perfection, in a study on its correlation with depression. “Although individuals with perfectionist personality styles are vulnerable to experiencing feelings of hopelessness and depression, they can also be well served by these tendencies,” she writes. According to her, adaptive (healthy) perfectionists derive pleasure from their striving, while maladaptive (unhealthy) perfectionists believe they don’t do enough to warrant that feeling.
What if we could strike a balance and manage to stay on the positive side of perfectionism? All it takes is a shift in perception. Hemabharathy Palani is a contemporary dance artiste. She believes it’s how we perceive the results that make us healthy or unhealthy perfectionists. She says, “If I can bring about precision in every step, then the end goal will naturally fall into place, whether or not I think it’s perfect. To me, it’s about using perfection as a driving tool for getting better, not marking it as a destination.”
For some, perfection is about excellence. For some, it’s about precision. And for some, perfection is about constant improvement. But to most, perfectionism serves one common purpose–it acts as an innate motivation. It’s probably why seeking it can make us consistently better and help achieve greater expertise in whatever we do. Elusive though perfection might seem, this very nature pushes us to strive further. Perhaps, perfection is a mirage worth following. As Pablo Picasso once put it: “It’s always necessary to seek for perfection. Obviously, for us, this word no longer has the same meaning. To me, it means: from one canvas to the next, always go further, further…”