Who needs perfection? (a Rostrum speech)

As we trudge with feet of clay through the swamps of our sorrows, failure strikes us down.  We are always found wanting.  We are not up to the task.  We challenge ourselves with the question, “who needs perfection?”.  

Good evening Mr Chairperson, members and guests.  Who needs perfection?  I mean, really needs perfection?

If a student works hard all semester, and achieves a grade of 95% to come top of the class, should they feel a failure because of that elusive 5%?  For that matter, if they attained 100%, would that be ‘perfection’?  The student that achieves 30%, drops out of the course, finds work as a barista and goes on to have a happy and fulfilled life – did they need ‘perfection’?

Tonight I ask you to think again about perfection, and whether you really need it.  Too often we aim for perfection and berate ourselves when we fall short.  Some of us avoid that humiliation by simply giving up.  I don’t want you to give up.  I want you to aim high, certainly, but don’t stop simply because you didn’t achieve perfection.  There are two points I will make tonight.  Firstly, perfection for us mere mortals is by its very nature impossible to achieve.  Secondly, to achieve perfection is not actually a desirable thing.  

Firstly, why is perfection impossible?  Perfection – being correct in every detail – escapes our practical attempts to achieve it.  Firstly – much like beauty – perfection is in the eye of the beholder.  One man’s perception of the perfect meal is only fit for pigs in the view of another.  Notions of perfection are therefore relative – relative to the individual, to their culture, to their notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Thus, perfection defeats any notion of an objective definition.

As well, we humans are not created for perfection, we are created to survive.  Humans learn by making mistakes and surviving.  It simply does not make sense to be a race that seeks to perfect a single thing whilst all else goes to pot.  We do have feet of clay and so every thing we do carries that fatal flaw in its making.

Consider the very highest works of art.  The Mona Lisa – often considered a towering achievement of art – was painted by Leonardo da Vinci over the course of 17 years, and it only came to its current state when he died.  So clearly that painting is not perfection.  

Consider also the dangers and rigours of the space race and its complete intolerance of imperfection.  Billions upon billions have been spent in the space race, and yet, despite monumental effort, despite the world’s brightest minds and most developed systems, tiny flaws come into the machinery that powers the astronauts aloft, and when that occurs, people die in disasters such as the Columbia and Challenger disasters.  

Perfection requires far too much work and is unattainable.  We cannot define perfection objectively, and in any case as flawed and frail humans our creations must also be imperfect.  Perfection is impossible.

Secondly, even if perfection were possible, would it be good for us?  As we know, George Douglas Duke of Argyll said, “Every advance has a new horizon.”  Even the very best, having achieved the highest levels of excellence that humans are capable of eventually see their high water mark eclipsed by competitors or, sometimes, by themselves.  Nadia Comaneci obtained perfect scores in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, only to have those performances surpassed by later athletes.  If perfection were achieved, we would, perversely, stagnate and fail.  As humans, we need to progress and grow, to strive to achieve and to fly above our flawed nature.  The myth of progress, of ‘higher, faster, better’, caresses the ego of each of us to exceed the performance of those that went before.  Were it not possible – were perfection attained – we would not strive with our own personal arrogance to better our betters and succeed.  Perfection would become a straitjacket colouring our world with the blandness of mediocrity, where our will to succeed would be sapped by the knowledge that we can do no better.

Perfection is not desirable.

Now consider the original question.  Who needs perfection?  The simple answer is that no-one needs perfection.  Perfection is not possible due to our flawed and fragile natures, and in any event we cannot agree what perfection is.  Perfection is also not desirable, as knowing that we can do no better than our predecessors removes our desire to strive to succeed.  In fact we need imperfection.  We need to see an opportunity to better the world, to break new grounds of excellence.  We need to set the challenge, to stake our claim in the ground and ask all before us to better that mark of excellence.  In doing so we must recognise that what we have done is not perfect, and that what we have done contains flaws.  Imperfection allows us to advance our small corner of the world, and it allows us to challenge our successors to build upon our work.  There is nothing perfect in this world, but the world can be made better by our own actions.  

Ladies and gentlemen, perfection is neither possible nor desirable.  Who needs perfection?  No-one needs perfection.  There will always be a flaw, some minute imperfection, that will allow us to advance.  In that imperfection there is hope.  As men with feet of clay, should you aim for perfection, you will assuredly fail in that endeavour.  That is no reason to abandon the task, though, as you will leave the world in a better state than before you took up your tools.  

Stand firm, stand proud, and say “no-one needs perfection”. 

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