The Perfectionism Bug: There is still hope

Perfectionism - Essays by Roslin Steeple

If all of us had been perfect in every way and in everything we did, we would be like mass-manufactured factory goods, minus the barcode. But that does not stop us from taking pride in being called perfectionists. We look at all our little curves and rough edges as something that needs to be covered up or camouflaged or cured even. It is like answering the weakness question in an interview; we either live in utter denial of our flaws or quote diverse justifications on behalf of them. Would we apologize for who we are? Why then do we find it difficult to embrace and stop apologizing for our imperfections?

“Imperfections are somewhat essential to all that we know in life” – John Ruskin.

But it needn’t be like gulping a tonic. Embracing flaws is actually hard-wired into our systems. This is why the deepest connections are formed when you lay bare your vulnerabilities or why you find a dimple adorable.  The question is never about accepting flaws, it’s about harnessing them. If engineers could re-purpose fighter planes for domestic air travel, you can sure as hell make your flaws work for you. Your constant need for attention, your fiery temper or any of your other failings can be transformed into your strongest motivators. Easier said than done, I know, but I found it helps if you could identify which weakness affects which strength of yours and how.

For example, as a child with barely any social skills, I struggled with loneliness and the embarrassment of ‘being seen alone’. People intimidated me; going up to people and making friends was scary. So I started opening my mind and pouring my heart into my poems. Poetry became the embodiment of my pain, fears and dreams and I became the verses I scribbled. Now every time I sit down to write, I am marveled by the truth that we are much more the imperfections we hide in our closets than the best bits we proudly display to the world.

Unfortunately, most of the other times, I am busy running after perfection. Yes, guilty. Can I help it when the whole world is selling perfection at every walk and corner? Gym memberships, fairness creams, laser treatments, tuition classes, personality classes, how-to books for dummies – everyone has a bar of perfection constantly reminding us that we are not good enough. And we’re afraid to stop jumping because we don’t want to look like the fox who called the grapes sour. The core of marketing tactics is that it substitutes beauty with an alpha figure, career with the amount of money one earns and success with perfection. It’s easy to be misguided, especially when perfection has a star-list of advocates including Serena Williams, Steve Jobs and Gordon Ramsay.

But for all that, the road to success and perfection is the same only for a short time. Perfectionism can drive you towards your goals initially, but after a certain point, success and perfection becomes paradoxical. That point is called compromise. You either keep pursuing perfection or you take the compromise to success. Success is an optimization problem. Success is relative. It is never an all-or-nothing scenario like perfection. A successful writer is one who decided to stop editing his draft and finally published it. A successful actor is one who stopped waiting for the perfect debut role and made good the role he was offered.

David D. Burns, psychiatry professor and author of the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy says, “Perfection is man’s ultimate illusion. It simply doesn’t exist in the universe.” Some of you might counter this with Plato’s Theory of Forms as I found in some articles online. For the uninitiated, the Theory of Forms asserts that there IS a perfect idea or form for every object and property; that these forms are permanent, intuitive and independent of minds. The sky is blue, your jeans are blue, they correspond to the form of a perfect blue which exists in an illusory realm. One must understand that perfection, in this context, was used to argue in favor of the existence of this illusory realm Plato named ‘World of Forms’. Plato himself says that Forms are abstract ideas and the objects and properties in the practical world are imperfect copies of these Forms.

So we can still agree that, in the material world, perfection is unrealistic. And when we reject everything else as sub-par because they do not match our unrealistic standards of perfection, it is called the Nirvana Fallacy. The Nirvana Fallacy kills many more dreams in a year than failure does. Those are just my statistics. Unfinished blogs, unused club memberships, abandoned plans – you must be familiar with some of these examples. So you did not become a William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf. So what? That does not make you less of a writer.

The problem with the all-or-nothing approach of perfectionism is that we tend to see things in black and white. We are either perfect or we’re total failures. We stop allowing ourselves the chance to fail and hence, the chance to learn. The benefits of perfection are meager compared to its long-term complications which include living with the constant fear of failure, lack of satisfaction, panic attacks, depression and suicide in extreme cases.

As Voltaire stated, “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

The Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi finds beauty in imperfection and impermanence. It celebrates the flaws in design, the lack of refinement and the inevitable traces of time in objects. Someday, perhaps, we would be able to look at our own flaws too, not as marring us, but rather, as adding value to our lives. As making us whole.


How real is Reality? – Part 2 of 2

How real is reality?

So what exactly is the infamous double-slit experiment of quantum mechanics and how does it defy reality? To understand this, let us first recall the behavior of particles and waves when they pass through a slit. Consider that you are bombarding a wall with marbles through a barrier containing a single slit. Some of the marbles would bounce off the barrier and some would pass through the barrier and hit the wall. If you mark the spots where the marbles hit the wall, it will roughly take the shape of the rectangular slit. Now suppose that instead of the marbles you project a monochromatic light at the slit; then you will get an illuminated rectangle on the wall.  Moving on, let us consider a similar case with two slits instead of one. The particles passing through the slits would produce two similar rectangular impressions on the wall. But a light wave projected at this barrier would split into two waves – one at each of the slits. These waves, as they propagate beyond the barrier would interfere with each other. Where a crest meets the trough of the wave, they will cancel out each other and there would be no light, that is, it will form a dark band. And where two crests of the waves meet, they will reinforce each other and there will be light of greater intensity, that is, it will form a bright band. Thus, a pattern of alternate light and dark bands forms on the wall, which is called an interference pattern.

This is what the double slit experiment also does, but at a quantum level with electrons instead of marbles. An electron is a subatomic particle with negative charge. So when they are fired by an electron gun onto a screen through a single slit, as is expected, a single band is obtained. Similarly, when electrons are bombarded on a screen through a barrier with two slits, a pattern of two rectangular bands is expected. Surprisingly, the scientists got an interference pattern instead. To remove any possibility of the electrons having bounced off, interfered or co-ordinated with each other while passing through the slits, they were now fired one by one. Each electron hit the screen at only one point, like a particle, but the end result was still an interference pattern. This can suggest only one thing- that the electron split into two, passed through the two slits and interfered with each other like waves before hitting the screen like a particle. Baffling, isn’t it? To further uncover the mystery of the motion of the electron that was fired, they placed a detector at one of the slits that would give a signal each time an electron passed through the slit. And this time, as unpredictable and bewildering as it sounds, a particle pattern of two bands was produced.  The mere act of observing collapsed the wave function. And with it, collapsed the whole idea of reality as we see it.

Naturally, many scientists and theories stepped in to explain this ‘weird’ phenomenon of electrons, among which most of you would be familiar with Niels Bohr and Heisenberg’s Copenhagen Interpretation. It is based on Born’s statistical interpretation which follows from the fact that we can only determine the probability of finding a particle at a given location; that we cannot pinpoint the location of the particle for certain. The Copenhagen Interpretation proposes that physical objects actually possess indefinite properties until the time that they are measured. So the electron that was fired from the electron gun can be considered as a wave of possibilities and when it is measured, either by the photosensitive screen or the electron detector, all the possibilities collapse and reduce to only one of the possible locations, where it hits the screen or passes through the slit respectively. So now we can rightfully ask whether all of reality is just an enormous set of probabilities that collapses into something definite yielding to our perception. And if you have read part 1 of my post, you can also ask, is the scrap of paper real?

Particles are what form the matter or the substance around us. The solidness of what we touch and the feeling that something exists is because they are made up of matter. What if there is no matter? What if everything is just a wave held together as matter only because we are observing it? In that sense, reality would be, simply put, a figment of our imagination. And where does that put us in the whole scheme of the universe? Are we waves or particles or nothing at all? Even as these questions remain unanswered, we have to understand that this is just one point of view among many. There have been a number of arguments made against the Copenhagen interpretation, the most popular one being Schrodinger’s cat experiment. Can we really decide the fate of the cat in the box by looking at it? It definitely sounds absurd. Or as Einstein put it very deftly, “I’d like to believe that the moon exists even when I am not looking at it.”

Irrespective of what quantum mechanics says, our immediate sense-interactions with the world do not change. So even though I began the essay by asserting that reality is not real, I do not intend to force the idea on you. My intention was only to make you question what you call reality, to make you realize that the whole lot of material things you assign so much value to MAY not even be real. That the reality you take on face value is just skin-deep but if you dig deeper, you do possess some power, no matter how big or small, over your reality through controlling your perception.

How real is Reality? – Part 1 of 2

Essay - How real is reality

It isn’t. I know two words cannot make you disbelieve reality and chances are, you’re probably scoffing at the moment. But let me tell you why reality is not as real as you think it is. Magicians and illusionists trick the senses to create a sort of ‘cardboard reality’, while the real magic is actually going on in the heads, the eyes and the ears of the spectators. Movies are primarily, a large number of still images projected at a rapid rate to produce the illusion of movement. But what we actually see are characters moving and dancing and talking on the screen for we cannot distinguish between the separate images. Governments are actually a group of people passing laws in fancy buildings. What you call money is a piece of printed paper. They are what they are because we collectively assign a power or an extended reality to it. This is what is implied by the statement, ‘Perception is reality’. This perception is what differentiates between a scrap of paper and a 100 rupee note. So, in a sense, we are capable of creating our own reality, either individually or collectively. That being the case, how can we know how much of this reality is actually real, that is, independent of human perception, or is it even real in the first place?

Quite understandably, you would say that in all of the above cases, we have knowledge of what is actually going on behind the scenes even if we do not remember it every minute of watching the movie or magic trick. But how can that in any way, take away from the reality of what we touch, see and feel every second? I know the 100 rupee note is merely paper, but surely this paper is real and it exists? Consider this. You pile up your plate with Chicken Manchurian at a buffet, only to realize that they’re just veggies fried to look like chicken. You feel a vibration in your pocket and reflexively reach out for your phone only to find that you have no new notifications. You follow the killer to a decrepit building only to wake up on your bed in your own apartment. We have been deceived by our senses on multiple occasions. Yet you were so convinced that those were chicken Manchurian balls you were stacking on your plate! Most of what we believe to be true is based on the information interpreted by our sensory organs and as you can see, senses are fallible.

One could of course, argue that these are stray incidents and most of the times our senses do feed us the correct information. But the question is, how can we verify the correctness of this information? While copying out from the blackboard if you cannot clearly make out a word, you check with those sitting around you. The scriptural law of Jews states that the testimony of at least two witnesses can be considered true and is sufficient to convict the accused.  Analogically, you can conclude that something is real when a large number of people say it is so. Or, can you? For eons, we believed that the earth was flat, that it was the centre of the universe and that the sun revolved around it. The world ostracized and condemned anybody who claimed otherwise. But today, the idea that the earth is flat would sound funny to us. To put it in another way, the idea that the earth is anything but round would be preposterous! So we may have advanced marvelously in science, but we (scientists and philosophers excluded) are still pretty much orthodox when it comes to questioning our current reality.

Socrates is the first recorded person to have encouraged this question way back in the 4th century BC. In Plato’s ‘The Republic’, he presents the allegory of the cave. In this dialogue, Socrates describes a group of people whose legs and necks are chained to the wall of a cave from birth. There is a fire behind the prisoners and objects moving in front of the fire throw shadows on the wall facing the prisoners. The prisoners cannot look behind them or at each other. Consequently for them, the world looks like the silhouettes on the wall – dark and two-dimensional. He further supposes that one of the prisoners is freed and he sees the fire, people, animals, trees and mountains and he realizes that they are nothing like the shadows he believed the world to be. They have colors and occupy volume and are real. When he comes back to the cave to tell the other prisoners about the whole new world outside, they do not believe him and only notice that the freed prisoner is unable to see clearly in the dark, now that he had seen light, and so infer that escaping from the cave would harm them instead. Through this allegory, Socrates wanted to probe the possibility that reality is not like we have constructed it to be and we, like the prisoners in the cave, are refusing to look at the complete picture. So if we cannot treat the material objects of the world as real things, from where should we start to question reality?

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, started by ‘upending the apple basket of beliefs’, that is, disbelieving everything and examining each belief before accepting or discarding it. Though a lot of his deductions are disputed, his philosophical basis cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) is convincing and widely accepted. The essence of this statement is that if I am doubting, if I am thinking, then I must exist as a thinking thing in the least. This assertion, however, does not entail that we are physical beings with hands and legs and feet. So what are we? Are we just a ‘brain in a vat’ responding to electrical signals generated in a laboratory? Do we live in a Matrix-like world where all our experiences are results of computer simulation? Or are we living in a dream or a dream within a dream like Leonardo Di Caprio in Inception?

Can we ever answer these questions? Can we ever be sure that our objective world is real? So we are right back at where we started. The nature of reality is still an unanswered question in philosophy. And every thought process keeps ending in many more questions. But these are all thought experiments; mere conjectures you would say. Is there conclusive proof to say that the world is unreal? Yes. Or that is what quantum physics claims that the double-slit experiment does.

More on that in the next part…

Weather-proofing and Cutting the Small-talk

essay- weatherproofing and cutting the small -talk

You need three steaming shots of coffee to get you through an ordinary office day, unless you pour the first two straight on your head. There is no other way to survive the small-talk that boils and spills over around the coffee-machine and into your work. And no matter what kind of organization you work in, every morning mandatorily begins with the weather and in some cases, continues and ends with it too. If you are particularly lucky, your colleague may also tell you whether it rained in Pune yesterday, because phone conversations haven’t been spared either. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski euphemistically called this phenomenon of small talk, ‘phatic communication’.

He defines phatic communication as that type of communication which serves as a social link in interpersonal interactions and activity. It does not serve to exchange information nor is it in context with the situation at the moment.  The essence of his argument is that, “Primitively, language is a mode of action and not an instrument of reflection.” Malinowski further explains that the purpose of phatic communication is to establish a union with others through an exchange of words, the meaning of which is often irrelevant. In simple words, Malinowski suggests that small talk gets you to build familiarity and contact with new people. Other proponents of small talk claim that it prolongs conversations, develops a sense of belonging among people, centres you in the present, away from your smartphone and most importantly, saves you from awkward lulls in the conversation.

Now let us analyse each of them in detail. Humans are fundamentally animals and it is the process of evolution that differentiates human beings from animals. A rational mind is undeniably the best gift of evolution to humans. This rational mind is what drives us to search for the meaning of our existence, our identity in this world and where we are going. Socrates sought answers to complex philosophical questions through meaningful conversations with the people of Athens. This method uses questions to disprove or defend opinions and concepts. Thus, contrary to what Malinowski says, Socrates used language not only as the outcome of deep reflection but also to spark off reflection in the listener. The Socratic method is so popular that a number of universities implement them in their curriculum. Small talk definitely helps to prolong a conversation for its own sake. But the catch here is that you will always reach a dead-end with small talk and so you must be able to identify when the correct time to walk away is. The sense of belonging that phatic talk can give you is as superficial as itself. Just like trees do not form strong roots in shallow soil, one cannot base one’s sense of belonging on shallow conversations scattered around the weather or one’s outfit or the Oscars! One of the strong arguments in favour of small talk is that it avoids uncomfortable and embarrassing silences. Ironically, these silences are a result of small talk itself. “Speech is silver, silence is golden”, is an entirely different topic, but silence in conversations are actually nourishing. Unfortunately, this holds true only if you are in the middle of a deep, meaningful conversation where you can use silence to form your reply or even to absorb what the other person has said. Silences are not awkward in honest conversations; in fact, they convey that you are comfortable with each other. Why and when silence becomes uncomfortable is because you have exhausted all themes of common courtesy that form small talk and now your brain is tearing around in search of something to comment on.

When was the last time you had a conversation that you came off from feeling stimulated and contented and actively happy? That kind of happiness comes only with engaging with people at a deeper level. You can’t gauge my depth by throwing stones at me. You have to dive right in. People want to be talked to and feel connected with just like you are. They have questions brewing in their minds just like yours, looking for a release and explanation. If you are going through a hard time, you could spark off a dialogue on the inevitability of suffering, or you could talk about the institution of marriage, or conciliate on a universal definition of freedom or even question the existence of God. You may not find answers to all your questions, but you will find respite in knowing that you are not alone in seeking them. It may challenge or confirm your own views, but it will definitely help you to understand the person and yourself, because our perspectives and ideals form the core of what we are. And as Socrates would say “knowing thyself” is the crux of knowing the truth. “Good conversation”, Anne Morrow says, “is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after”. That explains why you feel so pumped up after talking to someone, particularly about common dreams, goals and ideas. So letting go of your inhibitions and discussing ideas can be the solution to your lack of creativity and motivation.

A study published in Psychology Science journal titled, ‘Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-being is related to having less small-talk and more substantive conversations” found that an average of 17.9% of our conversations consisted of small-talk whereas 35.5% were substantive. Even substantive here is related to socializing, eating and watching TV. It further goes on to demonstrate that the happiest participants spent much less time on small-talk (around one third of that of unhappy participants) and twice as much on substantive talk.

The problem is that we don’t converse anymore. We don’t discuss, we don’t debate, we don’t reflect, we don’t colloquy. We only communicate. And like the primitive man, we talk only as a mode of action.

When you talk about the book that taught you to be positive, or the movie that resonated with you or the newspaper article that kick-started a train of thought, delve deep into it and take the other person with you. They may not be passionate about books or movies, but everybody is essentially passionate about being passionate. Passion is perhaps, one of the most honest emotions and it is this honesty that binds you to the people around you. It is what gives you a true sense of belonging.

To encapsulate, meaningful conversations breed meaningful relationships and this will help you much more in your social and work life than what small talk claims to do. In this digital age, where conversations by themselves are rare, we don’t have to limit the ones we do have to vapid observations. So cut the small talk and dive deep.