2 min read

Is perfectionism just misperceived margin of error?

When working with the physical world there are always acceptable margins of error. When working too long in the digital you never get a sense of what a margin of error even is.

When doing something, there is a tolerance within which accuracy doesn’t matter. These tolerances should determine the speed and precision with which you’re approaching the task.

The margin for error when sizing a piston to fit inside a cylinder is quite small, the tolerance for how large you should chop some onions in a stir fry is quite large.

What a lot of people call perfectionism is actually a lack of understanding of tolerances.

Back to the slicing an onion example: you can take 10 minutes to slice an onion if you are insistent on extremely similar thickness for each piece of onion. But does it matter to the outcome if you get a piece of onion that’s 2x bigger than the rest? How about 10x bigger than the rest?

Being oblivious to acceptable margins of error often happens when you’re working without an outcome in mind. Outcomes are what set the guideposts for the tolerances you’re operating within. When working with an outcome in cooking you swap to thinking: when will imprecision have a noticeable affect on taste? And at an even higher level, when will that noticeable affect on taste actually be bad rather than just different.

Should be timestamped but jump to 4:45 if it doesn't work

Watch how this painter seems almost careless as he starts painting. He’s making huge strokes and there’s paint chaotically dripping down the canvas. Yet skip to the end and to see how precise he gets with the final details. You can see the margin for error shift from from high to low as the painting continues. A beginner has no perception of where and what that gradient shift looks like. (I was the kid in elementary school art class always 3 projects behind because I had zero sense of this and approached every part of every project with the same margins of error).

Or watch this video of Kenji cooking some curry. See how he eyes handles ingredients, how he sizes up their quantities, and where he applies his care (or not).

Yes, being able to do this comes down to being experienced, and imitating someone who’s experienced isn’t enough by itself. But that is the point: gaining a continually deeper understanding of margins of error is a core aspect of becoming experienced at something.

But when things are taught they’re often framed as “getting good” in a vacuum. When really it’s more about “know where you have to be good, and where being good doesn’t matter”

That’s one reason why action is always failure—the allowable tolerance you’re approaching an action with defines the imperfection you’re willing to accept. So when the action is viewed abstractly you can always find something imperfect with it. But the real measuring stick is against the outcome the action is seeking to achieve.

A lot of times it’s hard to pull back to an outcome and tolerance focused perspective because the work is wrapped up in self-perception. “Well if this isn’t perfect that means I’m bad at it.” But that’s a self defeating perspective because it takes action as an end to itself—something to be evaluated on a hypothetical scale of some imaginary platonic ideal, instead of being grounded in reality where things get done and perfection doesn’t exist.