Essays on Technology and Culture

Iteration to (Near) Perfection

Perfection doesn’t come the first time around. It’s a process, and it’s a paradox.

One achieves perfection through iteration and refactoring. The more you do a thing, the better you will be. Whether this is playing a musical instrument, writing code, painting landscapes, or writing novels, doing it more makes you better at it. The process is just doing the work. That’s easy(ish). You do it over and over, improving each time, even just a little bit. That complex piece of music becomes easier to play. The next app is done in half the time with less bugs. The next landscape looks more realistic. The next novel gets a personalized rejection slip, instead of a form letter. We can see ourselves improve with each iteration of the work.

The paradox is harder. We all have a frame of reference for what we want our work to be. The piano player wants to be on par with Thelonious Monk. The coder wants to write software on par with Apple. The landscape painter wants to be on par with Peter Paul Rubens [1]. The novelist wants to be on par with Vladimir Nabokov. Each work only gets you part of the way there. It’s like walking a distance of a mile by walking half of it, then half the remaining distance, and half again, and so on. You never get there. Sound familiar? It’s a lot like Zeno’s Paradox. This sounds awfully depressing. Try as we might, we’ll never get to where we want to be.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. First of all, it’s not just you. When you realize this, it’s liberating. Everyone has their idea of perfection that they’re trying to reach. Without that driving, compelling force, there’s no need for them to try, after all. We’re all chasing each other’s unreachable ideals, and though we may get infinitesimally close, we may never get there. But that’s fine too. If we got there, we’d either find another unreachable ideal to chase, or we’d stagnate and die. When you accept that, life becomes much easier.

  1. Not the guy who plays Pee-Wee Herman.  ↩