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You Don’t Have To Be Perfect—But You Do Have To Try

Daily Stoic Emails

There is ego and arrogance in perfectionism. For in believing that perfection is even possible, you are denying the fallibility baked into the human condition and ignoring our limited control over any outcome in life. 

But there is also ego and arrogance in not giving your best. In settling for “good enough,” as if whatever you decide to give the world is plenty, you are rejecting your potential. Or worse, you are rejecting your agency and the opportunities you have been given. It is a giant middle finger to everyone who depends on you and the people who would kill to be in your shoes. 

The Stoics aimed for the Golden Mean between these two extremes. They did not believe in perfectionism, nor did they believe in settling. As Epictetus wrote: “Is it possible to be free from error? Not by any means, but it is possible to be a person stretching to avoid error.” That’s what Stoicism is. It’s stretching. To be better. To get better. To avoid one more mistake, to make one step closer towards that ideal. 

In his book When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi—a world-class surgeon dying of cancer—expressed the idea even better: “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” 

That’s what each of us owes to ourselves and our work. Forget perfection. Forget about good enough. Aim to be your best and let virtue guide your effort. Then be happy for every inch of progress you make, every inch closer you get to the center of the bullseye.

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