Buckle up: this is a long one. And it might be my TED Talk.
People in my circle have often heard me assert this statement:
Abandon perfection. You can never achieve perfection. But you can always strive for excellence.
I have seen so many people trying to achieve the perfect result. Usually what happens is that they never complete the task. It’s never good enough. It’s never perfect. They keep trying, and make excuses that they’re improving the final product, and maybe it does improve, but it will never be perfect. And it’s likely there won’t be a final product; perfection really is the death of completion.
Now, what does striving for excellence look like in creating a theatrical production? (I use the example of theatre because I’m a theatre scholar and practitioner; however, this can be applied to other works of art, or any career.) I liken the finished product of a theatre performance to a painting. You might begin that painting with a fine layer of gesso, laying a solid foundation. Then you add a layer of paint that starts to outline the finished work. You continue to add more layers of definition, providing detail, texture, and substance. For an excellent painting, leaving out any of these layers diminishes the finished product; it remains incomplete.
In the last few shows I directed, I actually used this wording to my actors. They would say the lines and make a gesture, but I would walk over to them and say, “Let’s add some texture here,” or, “Let’s add an extra layer here.” I would suggest a look, a pause, a bit of subtext, and my direction would lend more subtlety and depth to the moment, which would become more human-like.
I recently saw a show that missed this extra texturing. The actors’ performances were competent, but they lacked humanity. Here were a bunch of characters on a mission: to get through the play-within-the-play that they had rehearsed, but everything was going wrong. However, they didn’t stop to acknowledge that anything was wrong. They just kept going (“Pace, pace, pace!” says the college director in Slings and Arrows) without revealing any truth in the moment.
But, you say, it’s just a farce! It doesn’t have to have depth and humanity! While Henri Bergson did say laughter arises from people behaving like automatons and marionettes, that theory still requires starting with people.
Another excuse I sometimes hear is that things are “just good enough.” This is generally an excuse to finish something without working toward excellence, let alone perfection. In most cases, things never are that good if they’re “just good enough.”
Fundamentally it comes down to another problem: people often can’t distinguish between good and excellent. They lack the training or discernment. They’ll watch a show, or read a report from a co-worker, smile and say, “Great!” because: it’s good. It’s adequate. No red flags, no obvious errors. It’s not excellent, but no one had that expectation. (As an aside, maybe we should be having that expectation of our fellow humans all the time. This is especially true in politics and government.)
So why bother striving for excellence? We as humans should always strive for higher, better, more. I’m not talking about “keeping up with the Joneses,” but continuously striving to make ours and others’ lives better. This is one of the reasons I spent years in academia as a college professor. And this belief is one of the reasons I wrote my dissertation on Goethe’s Faust, and continue to talk about that work over the last several decades. Professor Faust is forever striving. He never gives up, even when the task seems insurmountable or is in fact impossible. He tries to uncover farmland from the seabed, but the ocean always reclaims that land. His task is impossible—but he never gives up, never surrenders. He, and all of us, should always go boldly where no one has gone before.
Excellence is the final frontier that we must always strive to reach.
And now: cats.