I’ve come to appreciate an interesting lesson while combining creative and intellectual ambitions with perfectionism: pursuing perfection according to certain expansive goals actually leads away from any meaningful perception of “perfection.” If carried through, particularly ambitious, magnificent aims for creative projects can grow them into a scale and complexity more analogous to the design of a city or at least a neighborhood than a single, intentional work of art or design.
A single work can be circumscribed, defined, and evaluated. Sometimes they even give a sense of achieving perfection according to the intentions evident in them. Cities or neighborhoods are composed of many interconnected works and can never become perfect—not just due to the difficulty involved, although that is relevant to flaws creeping in—but because there is too much going on and there are too many simultaneous intentions to retain clarity about such overarching terms of evaluation. Likewise a single passage of an epic can retain a focus within itself similar to a short story, but the breadth of the thing is something else. Or rather, it takes on many qualities, perspectives and mantles.
Even given the sense in which one person can encompass many different facets at different times, it’s surprising to find that in practice a creative process primarily involving one person can open up in a similar way to a city or neighborhood designed by many, so that even one creator ends up populating as much as unifying. At some point, it’s difficult to judge, criticize or admire except by adopting a limited view. So I feel like perfection means less and becomes less applicable even as I feel like I do come closer to attaining expansive and ambitious goals, overall.
I suppose this sense of unfolding is something that few writers or single creators of creative works get a chance to experience, as opposed to filmmakers or others who work collaboratively. I particularly feel that relatively modest goals for single writing projects differ not only in degree but in kind from something like a philosophical epic novel few novelists would be crazy enough to attempt, or—as I have also perceived, through glimpses—an intricate body of nonfiction work such as few philosophers have written. I only know this from experience.
I think it’s unfortunate that few perfectionistic writers—and perfectionists make some of the best writers—will take the risks necessary to gain the valuable psychological experience of investing in work like this. It’s work that not only tests limits, but will redistribute creative attentions for less of a sense of tight, intentional control over a project, but a deeper sense of realization that one was nevertheless a facilitator of something ambitious and that it was realized.
Ego dissolution isn’t the right phrase, but it does have to do with opening up and letting go, even though—and this is important, I think—the way there requires a tremendous amount of struggling with tight, focused and laborious work to absurdly high standards. If you will, spiritual attainment of a less constrained view of a laborious creative process needs to go through it, first. Shortcuts do not work. (I believe I’ve heard this a few thousand times about esoteric spiritual practices?)