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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

Perfectionism as a Philosophical Razor

Growing up my mom had a Kindergarten. I attend this kindergarten for one year. And one year only. The thing was that, I was that kid. You know the one. That kid who always follows her mom. The kid who feels he knows better. The one who corrects any imperfection.

During that year the Kindergarten organized a play. The play was called "Mr. Perfect". I deemed it fitting. I could point out mistakes and act in my most natural manner. I still remember my how I acted and how I showed my most perfectionist self.

Short after my perfectionism transformed into an expression: "It's obvious". My dad still gets PTSD goosebumps when he hears the expression. My mom had another pet-peeve. My memory. I would out her in white lies or alter her stories while she told them. She hatred that

The problems went outside my family as well. I had for years a deep hatred for dumb people. I could understand them and my mind knew mercy. "If you cannot perfect simple actions, there is no space for you in my life" I would think. And yes, it hurt when I lost friends I confided with, especially when the ones who were close to perfect.

This stream led to my first bout of psychotherapy. The goal of which was to make me learn how to fail. A goal that led to my third bout of psychotherapy decades later but that is a different story. In my first rodeo, I did dozens of IQ tests and puzzles for gauging what I could do.

I was asked to change schools which I refused. I was asked to do the impossible. To bend spoons with my mind or solve the equivalent to the "Seven Bridges of Königsberg" problem. But in contrast to Euler I did not invent Set theory. I just failed and learned from the collapse of my perfection. It was brutal.

Much as the 39 signatories of the first US Constitution, I learned that perfection might not be possible but that no other ideal is worth putting ones life effort behind. I grew. Painfully but more voluminous.

My idealism continued. At university, I realized the pursuit of excellence was idiotic. At most it meant that I learned perfectly the few things my teachers asked me to learn. I could do better learning more broadly and less perfectly. And so I did. I double majored and finished both in the same time my peers finished one major.

I also worked in research labs and managed to build "the first Scanning Tunneling Microscope in Costa Rica". This project allowed me to get awards and fellowships. But more importantly it gave me the arrogance to contact scientist in top institutions.

All said yes, and few months later I was at MIT. Where my perfectionism faced another blow. In the hectic hyper caffeinated mania that is MIT, I learned a truism "perfect is the enemy of good". That was new to me but a mantra there. I learned from the best that perfection was not really valuable. That it was bad. It was a sordid painful blow. A blow that loosens my grip.

My idealist pursuit of perfectionism was still there. But doubt crept in my mind. When none of the top US universities took me. I gave idealism a last chance. I emailed ETH Zürich where a Prof had asked me to keep in touch after I had cold emailed him earlier in my graduate studies. I got a job.

We flew to Zurich. The week before I arrived a psychologist had given a seminar on Impostor Syndrome in my group. I normalized the knowing feeling that chew away my bones. That told me daily that things were wrong there A year later I was fired.

My first therapy was a good trial run into the world of failure. But as the yellow brick road of my career crumbled. I spiraled into depression Six months after that I was single again. My faith broke. My life fell apart. I was 28 single, depressed, and without a job. In the empty void where my flag of perfectionism one waved. I could only bear a romantic nihilism.

As the ashes of my meteoric fall into rock bottom cooled down I learned that one cannot be sad for too long. The good thing of being bipolar is that your body bounces back. Mania came and I built myself again. Not a perfectionist. Not an idealist. Not a nihilist. But myself.

I learned something else. Not something new. Just something new to me. "We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one". With the company of Confucius and others, I rebuilt myself.

I vouched for Socrates dictum and went to therapy again. I grew over some of my childhood pain. I cried with my mom in Copenhagen as I learned how hard raising a perfectionist son was for her and my family. I grew.

I am still annoyed at dumb people. I find things obvious more often than not. But right now, my pet peeve is perfectionism. I can't fail at laughing and being cynical when someone tells me about their struggles. I can't empathize. I know the ideal is a hurtful one, one without value, that one should out grow.

A kind of philosophical razor. Just as after you are dating one should not date someone who has not have had a long relationship before. There is so much to learn if someone is still pursuing perfectionism that my body just seems the distance too great to connect.

What is left after severing off the chaff is a group of mutts. A community of resilient gritty survivors. A smaller and less chirpy community I love to call home. "Being the richest people in the cemetery does not matter to us." Being right, accurate or perfect is irrelevant. What matter is "going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful"

I still struggle with what to pursue. The beauty of perfectionism is its simplicity, or in other words, the danger of a single story. We assume the world works one way and we aim at climbing all mountains in that direction. Without the perfectionist naivete the world is a vast expanse of possibility.

As I start my fourth round of psychotherapy, I still wonder what a good life is to me. I know I am not the first. But the struggle is real. Seven years in my second life, I know I will find out. I know I can choose for myself. I know the world is wide and we are few. We will manage. The kids will be all right

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