I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard the saying ‘practice makes perfect’, yet I wonder how many people have reflected, not just on its veracity, but on its usefulness. Firstly, and to make a logical point, how could someone who is imperfect ever recognise perfection? Wouldn’t I need to be somehow perfect myself to know that someone or something else was similar? If this is so, then to accept the aphorism that practice makes perfect must be an article of faith. We cannot know it is true until we ourselves reach perfection.
Aside from that, my main contention in this article is that striving after perfection can be actively damaging to one’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Firstly, it creates the tendency - which could become an obsession - to continually compare oneself with others. Plenty of articles have appeared and continue to appear in the media about the high rates of stress and depression among young people, who are continually exposed to ‘beach body ready’ beautiful models and celebrities in newspapers, magazines and through social media. Such messages raise the risk of them feeling envious of these icons and becoming dissatisfied with their own appearance, lack of wealth, fame, popularity or whatever.
Further, wanting to be ‘perfect’ (through practice or by some other means), hurls one’s thoughts into the future, perhaps to the detriment of appreciating one’s life now. Future-oriented thinking also often goes hand in hand with patterns of thought such as ‘if only’, ‘I wish’ and ‘what if’. If these musings aren’t based on the desire to take direct positive action to improve oneself or one’s lot, then the temptation is to wallow in the unpleasant feelings mentioned above, so creating a mood of gloom and frustration that again taints the present moment.
The surrealist painter Salvador Dali said: ‘Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it’. This is not defeatism or fatalism, but a practical viewpoint that frees one from the shackles of perfectionism and allows each of us to try to become the best that we can be, in whatever area of our life we choose.
When my wife was head of a nursery school in Market Harborough, she would always dissuade staff from telling children that practice makes perfect. Instead, her motto was ‘practice makes better’, and she did her best to ensure that when they practised, in whatever way, the children enjoyed themselves as well.
Wise advice indeed, it seems to me.