February 26, 2021

Preoccupations: Perfectionism, Challenged in Building a Boat

A sailboat is a beautiful thing, and you begin building it possessed by a vision of exquisite and perfect beauty. Then, across the sprawling hours needed to build it — 3,500 in my case — this perfect vision crashes into the rocky reality of uneven skills and imperfect character. In the end, unless you negotiate peace with the demon of perfectionism, you’re left with the ruins of a dream and a painful testament to personal shortcomings.

It’s something we all confront in our work, if we care about that work. There’s never enough skill, time or budget to get things just right, so we compromise. The push for more productivity keeps tightening the screws. As Tom Rachman, author of “The Imperfectionists,” says of his frenetic stint reporting for The Associated Press, “One had time to cope, but rarely to excel.”

In the wake of furious coping, we may wonder if we’ve compromised not just the product, but also our souls.

I first reported on my boat-in-progress in a “Preoccupations” column in January 2010. I wanted more than a boat; I was also deeply interested in the values of the working life, and in pushing beyond the edges of my physical and intellectual abilities.

I’m a recovering perfectionist, and the project challenged my recovery at every turn. A hard-core perfectionist will never live long enough to complete a wooden boat. Yet an indifferently constructed sailboat is both an embarrassment to a noble tradition and a potential hazard to anyone trusting it to keep out the sea. The question kept nagging: How good is good enough?

The quandary converged in the week I made the windows — “portlights,” in nautical parlance. My original vision had glowed with four bronze portlights, classy details on a traditional-looking boat. When I learned they would cost $250 each, I cast about for an alternative. There are aluminum and plastic portlights, which in relation to a wooden boat should be held in the same regard as wharf rats. That left wood, which meant I’d have to make them myself.

A window needs a frame to define it, so I made an oval pattern and began cutting out pieces of mahogany. No need to clutter this account with technical details, but there had to be continually changing bevels and perfect joinery, and the needed precision was beyond my skills. After a week of tossing failed attempts, I finally assembled and varnished some imperfect bits, happy to declare the wicked job done, but not feeling very good about it.

Many people have riffed on this interior conflict about perfectionism. Bill Withers, the RB singer/philosopher, said on NPR that he’s told his children, “You know, it’s O.K. to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you’re going to have to pass through all right, and when you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it because that may be as far as you’re going to get.”

But here’s Paul Krugman in a New Yorker interview, discussing health care reform and telling us not to be satisfied: “There’s a trap I’ve seen some people fall into — you let your vision of what should be get completely taken over by what appears possible right now — and that’s something I’m trying to avoid.”

Whom to follow, Mr. Withers or Mr. Krugman? Is “getting used to O.K.” tantamount to complacency, or to the zenlike acceptance that leads to a satisfying life?

I saw a couple of principles through my portlights, and they seem to refract throughout the universe of work.

First is that different pieces of a boat, like any spectrum of work, require or tolerate different standards of craftsmanship. Things that affect structure and seaworthiness must be done correctly, and if the amateur builder doesn’t know how, he or she had better yell for help. But cosmetic issues like the window frames address the builder’s ego, not the boat’s integrity.

Second is to recognize that imperfection is an imprint of our humanity. I was trying to build my portlights to the standard of machine-made products — but why? Except for its screws and bolts, my entire boat is handmade. Why should any piece of it pretend not to be?

These portlights are a recording of my own skills at the time — imperfect, but not because of sloth or carelessness. They testify to the best work I had in me at the time, and a decision not to plunge into the self-defeating bog of obsession.

The lesson for the larger world of work is that excellence is not an absolute, a holy grail to be pursued everywhere, immutably. Every task forms its own universe, and it asks for discerning judgment. A humane judgment.

I launched the boat in August, and while it’s a cavalcade of imperfections, it does what good boats do: It floats and sails, and looks rather smart in its marina slip amid a swarm of white plastic production sailboats . Onlookers have called out the portlights — “You make those? Nice!” — which embarrasses me a little, because they’re just not looking critically enough to see the flaws.

My recovery remains imperfect, and my ego is still bobbing to the surface, willful and slippery.

Lawrence W. Cheek is a writer living on Whidbey Island, Wash. E-mail: preoccupations@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f676c6549f46208c68576911a9a76406

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