I have noticed a popular concept for authors these days is to have a project that they experiment with and write a book about. For instance, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.
I like this concept. I was thinking, if I were to take this approach, what project would I pick?
And then I realized there was a project that had already picked me.
So this is where I admit I unfortunately embarked on The Perfection Project. The course of this project spanned over two decades. I mapped out what would lead to a perfect life. I read books and I did my research.
And I was even successful. Okay, yes, nothing is perfect, but I am pretty sure I got about as close as you can get. So if you are currently on your own perfection project I am here to tell you, stop now. The end result really isn’t that great.
HOW I REACHED PERFECTION
At 26 years old I had accomplished all my perfect goals:
I had a perfect college experience where I had lots of personal growth, made the loveliest of friends, and had made close connections with my professors. I had read many books about what the perfect and most fulfilling job would be and it was a career of contribution and helping others. I also learned what job a perfect Christian would have, and it was a job helping the poor. So at age 23 I landed my perfect fulfilling job helping the poor which also made me (in my mind) a perfect Christian.
Now it was time to find my perfect husband. I had also read many books on this topic and knew what I was looking for. Kind, slow to anger, selfless, compassionate…etc. And I found him. And we got married. I had read so many books on conflict management and relationships (and I had luckily married someone who was very, very patient with me!) So, in result, we had minimal conflict and had a lovely and perfect first years.
And to top it off, we lived in the perfect town – not too big, not too small. We had perfect relationships with our parents and in laws as there was no conflict and both sides were supportive to us. Also, I was never overly drawn to material things – so our modest house was also perfect.
I know what you are waiting on now – to hear about how it crumbled. But that’s the thing, It didn’t. It stayed intact. I had arrived. I had made it. I had done what most people only dream of doing, and I was only in my 20’s.
But I was confused about my arrival. I felt sad. And things weren’t even fake perfect or the worldly version of perfect. My perfect wasn’t about consumerism, or power, or any of those things. I truly had a wonderful relationship with my husband and I worked at a job that was helping others and I truly believed in the cause.
How could I possibly be sad?
REACHING PERFECTION MEANS YOU CAN’T MOVE
I felt like I couldn’t move. My husband and I had talked about having kids – but I had seen the charts on relationship decline once a couple has children – not a smart move if you are trying to have a perfect marriage. I thought about taking on a different position at work or furthering my education – but my position was already perfect – I wouldn’t want to compromise that. So I didn’t want to make any changes to anything, at all, EVER.
But then there would be these moments – when I would picture the rest of my life. And it was just always the same forever. And although my life was “perfect,” there was a deep sadness in this.
I remember my husband telling me that I had reached my “local maximum.” (He’s a nerd scientist so he says things like this sometimes). He described the idea in terms of robots that are supposed to find the highest elevation. However, instead of finding the highest elevation the robot in this scenario would be stuck on the first peak, though it was not the highest peak. Any movement down in elevation would be regression. In result, the hypothetical robot is stuck on this first peak forever and never finds the highest point.
Or I think of my husband’s story from summer camp as a kid. His parents delivered a package of all kinds of goodies and treats, but he feared if he left package in the cabin someone would take it. So he spent the whole day protecting his goodies and treats, and could not leave the cabin to go out and have fun with his friends.
Perfection means you can’t move. You are stuck.
WE ARE MOST FULFILLED ON MISSION
Looking back, I believe I was sad because I was not on a mission or a journey. If you have ever gone hiking on a mountain, it is the climb that is most fulfilling. It is the anticipation to the top – but the top can only be enjoyed for a short time. To reach the top and try to enjoy the view forever would be incredibly, incredibly boring even if the view was amazing. We must always be climbing and anticipating new views.
If you have read a Donald Miller book or heard him speak in recent years, you have probably heard him talk about the idea that we are all characters in our own story and a character has to want something. This is completely contrary to how I had been trying to live. I had worked really really hard to NOT want anything. I was basically trying to be Buddhist or Stoic (or at least what I thought it meant to be Buddhist or Stoic). But honestly, I think I got my philosophy of “not wanting” from the Christian church. I thought that was the goal.
Looking back, I think I understood the concept of “wanting” as negative because most of the sermons I listened to lead to some version of “thou shall not want.” I admit, the sermons were probably mostly focused on desiring material possessions or power, but I somehow instead applied it to anything and everything.
Donald Miller also references the ideas of psychiatrists and psychologists in our history. Sigmund Freud believed that the ultimate human pursuit was the pursuit of pleasure. Alfred Adler believed that it was the pursuit of power. However, a man named Victor Frankl thought something a little bit different. Frankl was a psychiatrist that went through a Nazi concentration camp. He adamantly believed that it was not pleasure or power that people desired – it was meaning. People just use pleasure and power to distract themselves. But it is meaning that gives people the breath of life.
What was strange for me is that I thought I had already found meaning through my relationships and my work helping others. But for me, I had left two important components of living meaningful behind. I left behind growth. Which in turn, caused me to leave behind spirituality.
I am open for debate on this topic, but I want to argue that, without growth, there is no such thing as spirituality. I acknowledge I am speaking from my own experience and others will have a different take. But all I can say is, when I was busy maintaining my fortress of perfection, I felt the most spiritually dead I had ever felt.
A LITTLE BIT OF CRUMBLING IS GOOD FOR YOU
So I said that things didn’t crumble. Well, they stayed “perfect” for a few years but there was eventually a little bit of crumbling. Or at least some corroding. My job changed a bit, and my perfect position became a lot less perfect. It became stressful. I had trouble staying on top of everything. I felt there were expectations that I could not meet. I no longer felt I could use my talents or creativity in my job. And I couldn’t invest in the clients in the same way I had before.
I don’t think things have to go wrong for us to grow – I do not think it is a prerequisite. However, having things go wrong will 100% make you grow. For me, it was the first time I felt growth in quite a few years.
A lot of the growth had to do with letting go of, you guessed it, perfectionism. There were two forms of perfectionism I had to let go of.
Letting go of the Perfect Life
First, I had to admit that my life was not perfect anymore. Not just to myself, but to others too. People used to ask about my job and I would say “Yes, I love it! It’s such a great fit and so rewarding!” After the “crumble” I had to say “Yeah, it’s good..it’s pretty stressful at times…yeah not quite as good of a fit as it was before..yeah a lot of paperwork..it’s hard every day to stay on top of everything…”
I also used to be really good at fixing things and developing solutions, and as much as tried, I could not find a way to “fix” my job and make it like it was before. So a year later someone would ask “Is your job going any better?” And I would have to reply “No…about the same…still kind of stressed…still having trouble keeping up with everything.”
Having to deal with the fact that I didn’t know how to fix it and constantly having to admit that to others. That was hard.
Letting go of the Perfect Self
Second, I had to learn about how to be an imperfectionist in my day to day life. My job required it of me. I would have too many tasks to complete at work and not enough time to get them done. I was never someone before to ever be late for a deadline, and I was now having this new experience for the first (and second, third, fourth…) time. I also wasn’t able to take care of every need for each of my clients, and that was really difficult for me.
I had to develop a mantra for myself to repeat daily. It was the mantra that my mom used to tell me when I would be stressed about getting good grades in elementary school. It was simple, but it helped.
I can only do my best.
WHAT A POST-PERFECTION LIFE LOOKS LIKE
No matter if you had a little bit of crumbling or a lot of crumbling..
A post-perfection life is not a pile of ashes.
It is a city re-built.
With wiser builders.
Who have wiser plans.
Building wiser structures.
With rooms for flaws.
With rooms for intuition.
With rooms for change.
With rooms for uncertainty.
My goal for this post is not to convince you that there is no such thing as a perfect life. My desire is to tell you that if you arrive at your perfect life and try to stay there, you will remain unfulfilled.
What I am working on now is living a meaningful life. A meaningful life that is not perfect but full of growth. Every living thing on this earth is either growing or dying. Choose which category you would like to be in.
I know that I have gained a lot from reading blog entries and I also know if I took the time and journaled about them for a few minutes they would affect me in an even deeper way and bring me to some truths I may have not come to otherwise. So if you have a few extra minutes and your journal handy…here you go!
- Have you found yourself striving for your own “Perfection Project?” If so, why do you think you are striving after this?
- Have you ever been in a situation where, even though you wanted to move forward, you resisted in fear of messing something up or letting go of some kind of perfect thing in your life?
- Think of a time when things in your life were crumbling – either a little bit or a lot. Are you able to look back now and see the growth that came out of that time?
- Do you believe that to be spiritually alive, there must be growth? Why or why not? Can you think of examples in your own life?
- What does your city re-built look like? What rooms will the wiser builders make sure to include?
I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS!
Let me know if this entry helped you in any way, if you have any further questions, or if there is anything else you would be interested in learning related to this topic!
Also, I would love to hear about your own “Perfection Project” and steps you have taken to move forward.
Thanks for reading!