One of the rules I live by comes from Voltaire, who said “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” A similar idea is attributed to Confucius, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” I really took this aphorism to heart when a friend of mine was writing a book on dismantling racism. I was reading, editing and helping him find illustrations. The book was ready to go for a few years before it was published because he kept trying to perfect it, looking for a better example, a more perfect metaphor, a stronger anecdote, a better adjective. I ended up making him a sign on a huge poster board with Voltaire’s quote blown up big and stuck in on the wall by his desk. It still took him another six months to let it out of his perfection-seeking hands.
I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s newest album, Popular Problems. His 80 year old voice is rough, dry and imperfect, but those imperfections give it such an emotional resonance that my skin prickled and raised goosebumps and my eyes became hot with emotion ready to brim over in tears. While listening, that quote from Voltaire came to mind again and I had a small epiphany. The perfect is the enemy of the good in another way – not only does the search for perfection paralyze us, but it also does not move us emotionally. Thinking of another Canadian singer, Celine Dion has perfect pitch. Her voice is flawless and strong and she has never once moved me emotionally. Even singing songs with sentimental lyrics, she leaves me cold and I don’t care for her at all. Perfection is not beautiful, imperfection is.