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The Siren Song of Perfection

"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." - Salvador Dali

There are countless legends revolving around beautiful, seductive beings luring unsuspecting travelers to their doom. Virtually every culture has at least one or two of these monsters in their folklore. Sirens, will-o'-the-wisps, mimics, faeries, devils... It's a common mythic theme in which an unwitting victim is faced with an irresistible temptation only to be devoured, damned, or both.

It's easy to apply these popular cautionary tales to external forces such as charming, predatory, two faced individuals but what of internal temptations? There are a number of these that could be applied to the siren songs of old but I'd like to focus here on a particularly vicious lure that's not only common but actively encouraged by society.


If you can avoid making any mistakes then you can avoid criticism, judgement, failure, and a world of other uncomfortable realities. All of the uncomfortable realities, really. If you're perfect then you have nothing to fear. If you're just cautious, and thorough, and good enough you can't let anyone down. You can please and delight everyone without risking anything. Safe from humiliation, from getting yelled at, from guilt, from self-hatred. You can just sit back and rake in the praise. Everyone will approve of you. You will approve of you. All you have to do is everything right the first time, every time.

Perfection is an unassailable thing of beauty. It frees you from potential shame while guaranteeing happiness and prosperity. After all, isn't that what the world expects of you? Isn't that why you feel ashamed of your mistakes? Isn't that what everyone wants? Employers, family, folks on the web, don't they expect perfection from you? Don't they get upset when you don't deliver it? Mistakes are what get people fired, after all. What makes them hated. Flaws are something you're to hide if not do away with entirely. Mistakes can hurt yourself and others. So not only is perfection a noble goal but normal. A promise you've made to the world in exchange

Bird-Siren playing the di-aulos. Paestan Red Figure. 350- 340 B.C. Würzburg, Martin von Wagner Museum .

for existing in it.

It's also impossible. Perfection is as unattainable as it is unassailable. It will lure your ship onto the rocks.

There's nothing wrong with shooting for the moon, but there's a difference between ambition and perfectionism. Ambition requires risk and propels you forward. Perfectionism holds you back. It's sheer beauty and impossibility set you up for failure and misery. It sings that you can have it all without taking any risks, which is a difficult song to resist.

I've been easy prey. I'm not entirely sure which came first- the perfectionism or the anxiety. Never certain of where I fit in the scheme of things I thought maybe I could get away with my eccentricities if I were, I suppose, a model eccentric.

I'm great at starting things. I have more ideas than I know what to do with and I'm always eager to begin a new project. Finishing something, however, is terrifying. By declaring something 'done' I'm declaring it perfect which, naturally, it isn't. It can't be. It's tempting to either work on said thing forever or to give up on it entirely. Be it artistic endeavors, tidying up, or simply making a phone call... procrastination has become more than a bad habit. It's a way of life.

Perfectionism adds an element of fear, of definitive failure, to everything you embark upon. The sirens perch on the rocks above the wreckage of your productivity like vultures and croon. Their song highlights potential future works in all their glory and the tragic fall that follows a single misstep. So you tread the water and prepare, trying to make sure every little detail is right before you act. Every aspect, every atom, everything has to be exactly so.

The devil is in the details.

Inevitably you make a mistake. The ultimate sin. You can't tread water forever. You gradually sink, all your promising ideas and hopes dashed against the stony cliff-side. Nothing you do can live up to your expectations. The sirens laugh as you drown in your own insecurities.

Viktor Vasnetsov. Birds of Joy and Sorrow (1896)

I'm still treading but I can see the shore from here. I still hear them singing and laughing but I'm slowly learning to shift my attention away. Block my ears, focus on the shore, on the big picture, willing myself to take risks and move forward.

The trick is to view mistakes not as horrific failures but valuable lessons. As normal and as necessary as bodily functions. Embarrassing, yes, but inevitable and necessary. Accept it, internalize it. You will absolutely without question make mistakes. Keep taking risks, keep trying, it's the only way you're going to get somewhere. To be human is to be imperfect and that has its own beauty. It's difficult but it's the only way to get where you want to go.

We're all flawed. No one can know everything and no one should be expected to. We don't all have the same exposure to various skills, information, and concepts. Growing and learning are what we're here to do as a species, and we can't do that if we don't acknowledge what doesn't work and double down on wrongheaded ideas out of pride.

When someone shouts over the chorus of sirens, arms outstretched to pull you from the cold turbulent waters, the worst thing you can do is slap their hands away. Listen, learn, grow. Accept. Let them help you. Why be defensive when you know you're wrong or uncertain? We're all wrong and uncertain sometimes. A flawless facade is a heavy burden that will only sink you faster. Drop it and take their hands. Talk about what happened. Grow.

And that goes both ways. Everyone you know or have heard of can, do, and will slip up. It's important to acknowledge those mistakes, but don't beat people to death with the pedestal you put them on. They're imperfect, they can't do or know everything. Appreciate apologies as the signs of growth they are. Sometimes, it's the only thing you can do about whatever unintentional misstep that's been taken.

Easier said than done, I know, I haven't mastered this either, but the struggle to free ourselves from the mesmerizing call of perfection is far better than continuing to be devoured by it. We're all works in progress and knowing that, really knowing that, is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves and everyone around us.

Embracing your foibles and the foibles of others quiets the siren song of perfection. Each person that understands our natural state of imperfection turns down its toxic volume a little more, decibel by decibel. We can weaken the societal shriek of 'all or nothing' and make it easier for all of us to keep sailing onward together, honestly, and without fear.

Do you have your own methods to resist the siren song of perfection?

Is it something you struggle with?

Lets help each other steer clear of the rocks.

Share your experiences in the comments section below!

Odysseus and the Sirens. An 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse.

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