I work to be a perfect writer, a perfect friend, a perfect programmer, a perfect son and brother, a perfect motorcycle rider, and a perfect violinist. I also want to have perfect discipline, be perfect at picking where to focus my energy, and be perfect at things I don't even know how to do, like painting. At the same time, I realize that I will never be perfect at any of these things, even the ones I'm fairly good at. Some I will never be better than terrible at.
I also know that if the path to perfection were symbolized by a yardstick, I wouldn't be more than an inch or two from the start at even my best skills. That's not false modesty-- it's an acknowledgment of the impossibility of actually reaching perfection. It's so far out of reach that even excellence is very far away from it.
If there's no chance of ever reaching perfection, whats the point of striving for it? Goals can be many things-- they can motivate, but they can just as easily demoralize if you're not deliberate in how you use them. I think of goals as a guiding light, drawing me in the right direction.
If the journey is more important than the destination, then making sure one's journey is on the right path is all the more important. Having an impossible goal like perfection not only keeps you on the right path, but it focuses you on the journey. You can't look for shortcuts, arguing that the ends will justify the means, because there is no end. Instead, you see every decision in the harsh light of perfection, and are nudged towards the best path. Being imperfect, I make many mistakes and accidentally get sidetracked, but even so I move slowly in the right direction.
Having an impossible goal like perfection also creates a sense of urgency. Like the tortoise and the hare, having a goal that you think is easy affords you time to slack off. When you know that you'll never actually reach your goal, though, you are compelled to spend all of your effort moving towards it. A day that I don't spend marching towards perfection is a day that I can never make up.
The most efficient way to cover a lot of distance on foot isn't by sprinting, but rather by alternating running and walking. In the same way, dedicating yourself to the pursuit of perfection doesn't mean that you're wearing yourself out. Instead, you strive for perfect balance-- to push yourself when you have more to give, to rejuvenate yourself when you need it, to produce output when you can, and to take in new experiences and information when you need them. Pursuing any long term goal, especially a lifelong unattainable one, requires that sort of balance.
This long time horizon also encourages and necessitates the creation of many powerful habits. It teaches the habit of self-forgiveness. Beating yourself up only serves to slow your progress and hold yourself back. Instead you must find that balance of learning from your mistakes and giving yourself permission to try again with confidence. On the path you also learn to see the truth, especially the truth about yourself, slightly more clearly. Action taken on false information moves you away from the path, so your motivation to see accurately overrides the natural inclination to deceive ourselves with a rose-tinted self image. Also contributing to a clearer picture is the idea that personal weakness isn't a permanent source of shame, but a climbable mountain on the path to perfection.
In the pursuit of perfection, there's no room to compare yourself against others. No one is perfect, so setting their level as your goal does nothing but erect an impassable wall where they stand on the path. Instead, when you seek perfection, you compare yourself to only one person: the person you were yesterday. If you are better than he was, and sufficiently so, then you spent a day walking the path, and are maximizing your potential. If you are the same or worse than the person you were yesterday, you have clipped a tiny bit from your potential, and should be even more motivated to proceed forward smartly and quickly.
I won't ever be perfect at anything I attempt, let alone everything, and neither will you. That shouldn't stop us from trying, though. By walking the path to perfection we allow ourselves to live good lives, to be the best people we can be, to reach as much of our potential as we can, and to be encumbered with the fewest regrets. That's a path worth taking.
Photo is of Starry Night, which is one of my favorite paintings. I made a wall sized version out of sticky notes at my old house. It didn't come out as well as Van Gogh's.