The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)

Part III. MEDITATIONS

Chapter 14. Seventh Meditation: Yes, but . . .

The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.

George Eliot

I attended a dinner party last week. The conversation meandered from affairs of the heart to current political affairs, from food and cooking to sports and literature. At a certain point we went around the table and talked about books that have influenced us. When my turn came, I talked passionately about Built to Last, which discusses visionary companies—organizations that had a significant impact on our world through their strong values and strong culture. When I mentioned Walt Disney as an exemplar of a visionary leader who made a considerable contribution to society, I was interrupted by the hostess: “Yes, but I heard that he was mean to his employees.” The “yes, but” gavel strikes again.

When people talk about Bill Gates, they may mention his technological contribution or his brilliant business skills, and then, almost always, the gavel strikes: “Yes, but he thwarted competition.” Yes, John Piermont Morgan helped the U.S. government on a number of occasions and set high standards for doing business, but he engaged in some shady deals. Great political figures are not spared the “yes, but” treatment. Yes, Lincoln freed the slaves, but in a speech in Charleston before the American Civil War, he advocated the superiority of the white race. And yes, Gandhi may have led India to freedom, but he was at times cruel to his wife. The list goes on.

Lincoln’s personal indifference to slavery (if true) is, to say the least, disappointing, but his actions led millions of people from slavery to freedom. J. P. Morgan may not have been a saint, but he nevertheless played an important role in developing confidence and trust in the economy and made the United States the most prosperous country in the world. And yet people dismiss these heroic figures with an offhand remark, unwilling to accept that a hero, outside storybooks and fairy tales, is, first and foremost, a human being. The question is not whether the perfect hero exists but whether we choose to focus on the core characteristics of the person, on his achievements and contributions, or actively seek (and inevitably find) a fault.

Whether we choose to focus on the positive or negative determines what we see in others and in ourselves. A person who focuses on the negative—the faultfinding Perfectionist—sees the bad as the active force in the world and the good as the passive force, the absence of the bad. A person with a positive view—the benefit-finding Optimalist—perceives the good as the generative force in reality and the bad as the absence of good.

It is no coincidence that the metaphysics of most religions and belief systems, describe the good as light and the bad as darkness. Light is an active force; darkness, the absence of light, is passive. A dark patch does not bring darkness to a lit-up room, as a single candle lights up a dark space. When Edmund Burke said that “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” he recognized the proper relationship between the positive and negative forces in reality: evil is the absence of good.

The implications of a negative focus—the belief that good can exist only if bad is completely absent—is that only a person without any dark patches, without any blemishes, can be good. No person can pass this test, and therefore no person can be worthy of our admiration.

The implications of a positive focus—the belief that the bad is passive and the good is active—is that our world can only be made better by people who do good, by courageous people who act. By virtue of acting in this world, these people also inevitably make mistakes, but this is the risk they take and the price they pay.

Beyond determining how we evaluate others, our approach—whether we focus on the positive or the negative—has a direct impact on the way we lead our lives. What we focus on determines whether we lead an active or a passive life. Do we spend our lives running away from unhappiness (negative) or pursuing happiness (positive)? Do we passively avoid depression or actively seek joy? Do we spend most of our time generating light or spend our days avoiding darkness? Do we lead an active albeit risky life (promoting the good) or play it safe and do nothing (avoiding the bad)? A negative focus leads to fear as the primary driving force—fear of making mistakes, fear of imperfection, fear of castigation. After all, no one, not even our cultural icons, is able to remain pure in our own eyes or the eyes of others, so who are we to try and why should we even bother?

Perfectionists who focus on the negative are so afraid of doing something wrong that they often refrain from action, conform to the status quo, and end up doing nothing. In contrast, Optimalists who focus on the positive understand that to act is, at times, to err but that it’s not the avoidance of making mistakes that creates the good life but rather the active pursuit of the good. Focusing on the good does not mean ignoring the bad but rather the understanding that the most effective way to eradicate the bad is to do good.

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Consider where you may be using the “yes, but” gavel, either in your relation to cultural icons or in your intimate relationships. What price do you pay for this form of dismissal?

In history—whether our own, our heroes’, or the world’s—we will always find dark patches, damned spots that taint purity. How we choose to deal with these flaws will determine our personal and collective futures. Do we shut ourselves in a barrel out of fear that we might taint our hands even more, or do we follow the risky path of Prometheus, who gave fire to mortals and risked being burned? Do we remain passive socialites who disapprove, or do we become social activists who improve?

To criticize great men and women for their wrongdoings, for their errors, is easy—for no person is perfect. But as Theodore Roosevelt said in 1910:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory or defeat.

To do no harm by not doing makes one a coward, not a saint. The true heroes are those who permit themselves to be human—who understand that to do good is to risk failure, that to act is to risk getting dirty. And we, who sit around the dinner table, should say grace and thank those brave, imperfect mortals.

EXERCISE

Image Making a Difference

What can you do to make the world a better place? Commit to one or two activities that would, in some way, contribute to others—whether writing an op-ed to your local paper about a personally meaningful topic, volunteering in your children’s school, or spending extra time with a friend in need. Don’t wait. Just do it, even if you do it imperfectly.

When you give, you receive. There are numerous benefits to prosocial behavior, from increased well-being to improved physical health.1