Considering that I set up WordPress over two months ago, it seems that making this first post took me quite a while. Upon pondering why I procrastinated this long on a relatively simple task, I realized that it was because I wanted it to be perfect.
Perfect in the way of style, because good prose goes a long way into making the reader understand, respect and remember what he or she is reading.
Perfect in the way of significance, because the topic of a first post, as the first choice of a series, holds greater importance to the writer than those that succeed to it – as if every plunge one takes was a mirror into their own soul.
And perfect in the way of being a fixed point of my thoughts, something I will never have to recant because it stems from flawless reasoning.
Unfortunately, this never happens. As soon as you spend time thinking about and writing on an idea, its flaws always start to glitter faintly under the light of critical thinking. The iron clad certainty of the first enlightenment fades away and your brain gives in to the doubts: is this really a good idea? Should things really be done this way? If this hypothetical objection was raised, would it not invalidate part of your reasoning? And so, the card castle crumbles, what was crystal clear before is left muddled, baseless and amended, thoughts are rethought and your quest for perfection is thwarted, your Graal yanked out of your hands by an invisible thread. And then, ashamed, you withdraw what you have until you can be certain that it is right. I’ve felt this often enough in my ideas, writings and in my works that I figured I’d talk about it. I would say that this post is mostly for myself, but perhaps others can benefit from it as well.
Perfection (or the lack thereof) is something that is often much more clearly felt than defined. The best example is the concept of God, who religions say is a perfect entity under all measurements that you would care to make: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and so on. By the aforementioned definition, there is no flaw that you could find about God. Now, if you were to look at the situation seriously, you would realize that several properties routinely attributed to God are inconsistent with each other, yet people routinely ignore this. Their feelings are unambiguous: the picture they paint of their deity cannot “feel right” if it is not glorified beyond all logic. They choose their gut feeling over consistency. The perfectionist (or the idealist) is the same – their work cannot “feel right” if it does not correspond to the mental image they have of what it should be. Because of this, they chase this image endlessly, neglecting to take into account anything else. Worse yet, they might never realize that their ideal is not self consistent and thus that nothing will ever satisfy it, effectively making it so that nothing they do will ever feel right.
Indeed, can there ever be anything perfect, even in theory? There is no perfect argument because there are no perfect premises, only a set of propositions a majority or a minority of people might or might not agree upon depending on whether it suits them or not. There is no perfect system of law because the essentials of what we want it to do are ever changing and often oppose irreconcilable world views. There are no systems of perfect ethics or morality for similar reasons. Closer to my line of work, there is no perfectly extensible software because it is impossible to predict everything users will want to do with it. There is no perfect syntax for a programming language because of the inherent subjectivity of aesthetics (Lisp syntax is either perfect or aberrant). Each and everyone of us has a slightly different conception and appreciation of everything that can be conceived. We even model each word in our own unique ways – what do you see in your head when I say the word cat? What do you see when I say the word God? Liberty? Intuition? I doubt our brains model these concepts in exactly the same ways, meaning that no abstraction is absolute and that any form of communication is inherently approximate.
No objective ideal of perfection can be found in a web of subjective appreciation, diverging interests and semantic approximation. This is to say that in seeking perfection, one usually pursues a personal chimera, an ideal which certainly means a lot to him but will never attain unanimity. While that is not a bad thing in itself – certainly, one can get a lot of satisfaction from getting a perfect score in a video game – it can easily lead to either failure or bitter disappointment (usually both).
The worth of an idea, an essay, a piece of software or of a solution to a problem should not be measured against some arbitrary ideal of what they should be. It should be measured pragmatically, against their expected benefit, may it be individual or societal. There are a lot of projects that I procrastinate on because I am still searching for the perfect way to implement them – designs that I would deem perfectly efficient, perfectly extensible, perfectly readable, and so on. However, this requires me to re-evaluate and rethink my projects everytime, because each insight, when examined carefully, fails to account for some property I would really like to have. It might also happen that two features are trivial to implement only insofar that they do not occur simultaneously, even though they are interesting in themselves. Worse yet, I might want to write a project using a programming language I want to make, hence delaying it unnecessarily by setting an arbitrary prerequisite which might never actually get done.
There are a few things to realize here. A great part of the worth of something is its availability: waiting two years to release a program in order to make it better or code prerequisites that may not actually be required in practice removes two years of availability. This availability is time where the program may still be improved while earning revenue and/or helping and inspiring other people. While it is daunting (for me, anyway) to release work that you are not perfectly happy with, or discouraging to let go before it matches your vision, it stands to reason that the pragmatic worth of imperfect work is made greater when it is published. It also stands to reason that committing to imperfect works rather than abandoning them makes it possible for the novel ideas they contain to propagate, earn revenue, help people, gather interest and constructive criticism from a greater number of people, all of which is likely to make them evolve much faster.
The world evolves in a very incremental fashion. Nothing in it is perfect. In fact, a lot of it is terrible if not unbelievably bad. Obviously, mediocrity is not a desirable objective, but the current state of the world does give some perspective, namely that it is in fact very easy to improve it. That’s why the most important thing is to impact it to the best of our capability, raise the bar slowly but steadily, spread our ideas around, whether they are good or bad, as long as we believe they can, for a few seconds, help the world leap ahead before fading away.