“Perfect” Almost Never Is

In my freshman college year, I took a great course on the History of Art. The professor was one of the world’s leading art historians and critics from the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art – and a really good lecturer to boot. He once devoted a full 90-minute lecture to one painting: Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. The presentation was “eye-opening” (literally and figuratively) and the analysis immensely fascinating, not to mention enlightening. But there was one “small” problem: he deemed this to be a “perfect” painting, perhaps the greatest ever.

One should use superlatives very sparingly – like fine wine. Too much and one’s senses begin to become dull, lessening the enjoyment. Indeed, overusing a superlative can even dull the word itself! For example, I was taken aback the first time I heard a British cousin say “brilliant!” when I made a relatively unremarkable observation. I knew I wasn’t a dumb person, but “brilliant” because I had a “thought”? I was too embarrassed to ask, but pretty soon realized that the word had lost all its “American” luster when I heard another Brit say “brilliant!” to some other banal comment. 

Of course, there are superlatives – and then there are SUPERLATIVES. Among the latter is the word “perfect”. This one should be used extremely sparingly, perhaps once or twice a lifetime. The reason goes far beyond the diminution phenomenon I just mentioned; that’s the least of it. The real problem is that “perfect/ion” hardly exists in the real world – and even if it does (very, very rarely) reasonable people could argue about whether indeed it is “perfect”.

Back to that college class lecture. The professor explained how this painting was basically the first ever to get the three-dimensional perspective absolutely right. He further pointed out how each of the twelve disciples was doing something that foretold his future (end). And so on. The lecture ended with the claim that this was as perfect a painting as one could imagine. And then he asked: “any questions?”

I was never known for my shyness, at least not in a classroom. So I raised my hand and asked: “How can you say the painting is perfect, when we know that this was the Passover seder – and DaVinci drew bread rolls on the table instead of matzohs (unleavened bread)”? The entire class went silent – several students turning around looking at me with astonishment that I had the audacity to confront this august professor. But to me more astonishing was the fact that the professor himself was struck dumb. After what seemed an eternity (probably only a few seconds to all of us), he replied: “I never noticed that. Interesting point!” (The most incredible part of this story is that he was Jewish!!)

From that incident I took away two central lessons. The first – really important in light of my future academic career – was to forthrightly admit my error if a student caught me erring in some factually way. Indeed, with any such student I go out of my way to duplicate the quasi-compliment I received from that world expert. That’s part of higher education: students should never hesitate to ask or even “confront” a teacher with the facts (or opinions, for that matter). Encouraging individual thought is what thinking is all about.

The second lesson I learned is that the most “deadly” word in the English language is also the most positive of all: “perfect”. There are two, almost contradictory, reasons for that.

On the one hand, as my Art History Lecture story suggests, even when one thinks that something is “perfect”, it probably isn’t because there might (probably will?) be some flaw discovered later on. (Newton’s physics worked “perfectly” – until Einstein showed that this was not universally true.) On the other hand, if by some “miracle” perfection is attained, this will only induce others to try and get to “perfect” in their own bailiwick. But as the adage wisely states: “Perfection is the enemy of accomplishment”. In other words, if you try to be perfect, you will spend so much time on this almost impossible goal that you won’t get much else done.

There’s a relatively new word in the English language: “satisficing” – getting to a level that’s enough to accomplish the purpose you started out with. That’s not “satisfying”, i.e., we might not be completely satisfied (happy) with what we’ve done, but if it achieves the goal then that’s good enough. So instead of “deadly”, maybe I should have said “deadening”. Running after perfection not only won’t lead to satisfaction, but it might actually cause a contraction – a word that combines the contradictory terms of “contra” and “action”.

Bottom line: the perfect way to do things in life is not to try and do them to perfection.

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