Taming Perfectionism

Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The Book of Tea

There was a time in my life when I couldn't get anything done. I was studying many different subjects at once, from theoretical Computer Science, to Zen, to principles of graphics design, when I developed a perception of deep underlying beauty of all things. Suddenly I could tell beautiful code from ugly code, a beautiful design from ugly design, and beautiful writing from ugly writing.

I could always do this to some degree, but this time the sense of beauty (or its lack) felt far stronger and more refined than ever before. It was so strong that I found myself unable to complete any serious tasks. Whenever I sat down to implement my vision (whether by coding, or writing, or designing), I'd find that what I produce inevitably falls short. The code was too crude, the writing too clumsy, and the design too ugly. No matter what I did, there would be something essential missing from my implementation, and I could never put my mind on what it was. Producing anything took forever, and ultimately I discarded it all because it just wasn't good enough.

What is worse is that not only was my work not good enough, it was also not important enough. After I'd work on something for a while, a doubt would inevitably creep in and convince me that what I'm doing is irrelevant on any reasonable scale. My work was always a flawed, irrelevant vision with a crude implementation. Why bother doing anything at all, then?

Perfectionism, which was always a friend, turned into my worst enemy.

I've heard that "perfect is the enemy of good enough" many times, but the repressed artist in me refused to accept this as truth. I was stalled in a proverbial checkmate that my mind has cunningly set up for itself and I could see no way out. And I desperately needed a way out, lest I be stuck in endless cycle of consumption samsara. I knew that real artists ship, but I refused to ship mediocre work, which meant I could never ship anything.

Wabi-Sabi: for
	  Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

Eventually I lucked out. By accident (or was it an accident?) I stumbled on the fascinating Book of Tea which led me to the concept of Wabi-sabi - the Japanese art of imperfect beauty. Wabi-sabi is a set of philosophical principles that relate Buddhist concepts that can be observed in meditation to all aspects of design. For the first time it occurred to me that Dukkha (the fundamental lack of satisfaction with anything in the physical realm), Anicca (impermanence, lack of any "timeless" principle), and Anatta (lack of "self", or the idea that any object can be complete in and of itself and exist separately from the subject) apply to all things we create.

Looking at Wabi-sabi objects was a breath of fresh air. Inability to achieve any lasting perfection is not fought, but embraced via lack of symmetry, respect for blemishes, and unsanitized simplicity. Imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness is incorporated directly into the design - a simple idea that cuts the disease of perfectionism at its core.

Everything about this article is flawed - what I intended to say has an absolutely essential piece missing, the writing is poor and doesn't express my vision well (however imperfect that vision may be), and it probably doesn't matter in the long run. But I'm publishing it for all to see.

Real artists ship.


If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please drop a note at coffeemug@gmail.com. I'll be glad to hear your feedback.