The possibility of perfection

Contrary to popular belief, perfection is possible. It just doesn’t endure for very long. The masters of a craft can achieve it, but it’s presence is fleeting, measured in moments, rather than days and weeks. 

I think about this when I consider the difference between a novice and a master. Aside from technical competence, commitment, experience, and love, there are two things that separate the two. 

The first is that the average performance of a master is higher than that of a novice. That’s kind of self-evident. But to further illustrate it, let me assign some arbitrary numbers. Let’s say that perfection is what happens when operating at 100% capacity. A novice’s average performance is around 1-5% of full capacity. A master typically operates at upwards of 75%.

But that is their average performance. So it follows that, over time, both masters and novices put in performances that are both better and worse than their average. Which brings us to the second subtle, but significant, difference between a master and a novice: the rate at which they repeatedly achieve perfection.

A novice can work for weeks, months, years, and get only a momentary, infinitesimal glimpse of perfection. The gaps between his experiences of perfection are vast chasms. A master, on the other hand, gets the momentary glimpse of the promised land of perfection much more frequently. Every few days. Sometimes, every few hours.  

I say that perfection is a momentary, fleeting achievement deliberately. On the macro level, absolute perfection is just an ideal. It’s the portrait of a sage like Socrates. It is a normative model, a state that is comprehensible, but utterly unreachable. 

But on the micro level, perfection is eminently achievable. It is Federer executing a perfect backhand. It is Lewis Hamilton taking a corner without flaw. It is Messi floating past an oncoming defender. It is a surgeon making a deft incision. It is a writer composing a sentence that pulls at the heartstrings of the reader. It is an actor truly embodying his character’s reaction to another’s line. It is a scholar synthesising all his research into an original insight. It is a CEO making a tough decision. It is a chef placing a perfectly cooked sea bass atop a bed of crushed potatoes.

A master’s average performance is better than that of the novice. And he can also achieve perfection far more frequently than the novice. But mastery is not perfection. Yes, masters, and sometimes non-masters, can reach the clouds of perfection. But they cannot stay there for long.