It Must Be Perfect

In a lifetime I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people fussing and fretting over something that just had to be perfect. Truth be told that every one of those people had numerous areas of their life that were anything but perfect, and yet in some isolated aspect in their eyes they were determined that one particular thing should be performed precisely as they perceived perfection.

Through quite an ordinary experience I have been reminded recently of how such self-delusions can haunt our lives. The occasion happened to be binge watching an Australian Television contest program called My Kitchen Rules — or MKR.

My motivation for watching had nothing to do with perfection of any sort; rather I’m interested in food, I have travelled in Australia, and I was interested in a broader view of Australian attitudes about what constitutes “good” food and the differences in language for food items that we here in the U.S. have named differently.

The My Kitchen Rules program has seen some 11 seasons in which 10 to 19 teams of two compete in various challenges until one team is crowned the winner, for prize money of $250,000AUS – $100,000AUS. Yeah — that was a prize reduction for the last couple seasons as popularity of the program waned.

The reason I got to noticing the obsession with perfection had as much to do with the seasonal changes in programming as it did with the actual contest itself. Into the second season it became obvious (by comparison to the first season) that the producers of the series were placing major emphasis on particular characteristics of the teams for the sake of ratings. Certain contestants were always portrayed with heavily skewed personality traits; argumentative, judgmental, arrogant, etc., etc.. A search of regional media revealed that the skewing of coverage was strong enough that one former contestant was able to sue the production company for having so misrepresented them to the public as to make them un-hireable — a lawsuit which they won and the company is now having to pay this individual an annual salary because they cannot find work. All of which gets a long way away from where I wanted to go with this post.

The contestants on the program over the course of several years became noticeably less skilled as cooks, less well informed about food, and clearly more interested in the prize money than in food. But the change in contestants made their personal attitudes expressed in front of the camera even more telling.

As the seasons wore on and the skill level of the contestants declined the contestants were heard more often obsessing over how close their preparation of various food items was approaching what they personally viewed as perfection. But over the series it became obvious that their personal understanding of the “right” way to cook something was frequently flawed. They just didn’t know enough about what they were doing to know what a perfectly cooked duck breast (for example) was supposed to be. Or the “right” (as in a chef’s technique) way to make mayonnaise, or the right way to make an au jus. Hearsay, assumptions, impressions, or just watching other people were taken as the right way to do something even if that way was wrong.

It’s funny that we humans tend to prefer taking pride in one small success than in acknowledging our overall weaknesses. It’s hard to see our own faults; to suffer them to be exposed to others. And depending on our upbringing it may be that we have suffered greatly for every time we have failed to live up to someones idea of perfection. Friends of mine suffered physical punishment when growing up for their failures. I was fortunate in having parents who didn’t punish or spank me for offending their sensibilities — I always knew what I had done wrong when I was punished and it wasn’t because I missed “perfection.” My point being that sometimes we have “perfection” drilled into us in irrational ways. Dealing with that conditioning can be nearly impossible to correct, and I certainly understand that.

But the context of a game show where failure results in disqualification makes the striving for perfection all the more poignant. Teams of two crumble or grow stronger when they face a challenge and either find a way to make the best of a bad situation, or end up arguing and tearing each other down because they have been unsuccessful.

If you follow this blog you know I am not a competitive person. You would never find me on a game show; it’s just not for me. And I’m not particularly locked into the “right” way to cook food. I love adjusting traditional recipes, and trying different techniques. I don’t have a dining room full of customers who have to be satisfied at the end of each evening. I cook for a few people here and there. I may not alway get things just right, but neither am I wasteful. The idea of making and discarding great ingredients because something is slightly “off” just makes me crazy. I find waste offensive. I can see that if you are in a competition making a minor mistake can throw you out of the contest, but that still doesn’t make me feel better about people who aren’t sure how to do something wasting 3/4 of what they have cooked only to find that even when they have done the best they can their final product is still inferior to the competition.

Fortunately in real life — television game shows aside — we don’t have to have “perfection.” We can insist on perfection if we choose but it’s not a mandate in daily life. Whether we are looking for a new house, or a suit (yeah — I’m still one of those guys who lived in a business suit most of my working life) we may have our preferences but we can “live” with something other than the optimal.

Young couples that just have to have all the bells and whistles in their new apartment are looking for perfection. Buying that “perfect” car is another example. Either of those choices doesn’t make us a better or worse person and the only person keeping score is ourself. Oh, I suppose our so-called friends may think less of us if we don’t have a house as fancy as theirs — or better than theirs — or the same with the car we drive, the places we vacation, the company we work for, etc., etc.. But the opinion of someone else about the life you live is always going to amount to… well…. a hill of beans. They don’t pay your bills, they don’t sleep in your bed, they don’t eat your food.

We can burden ourselves with ideas of perfection but I guarantee that the aspects of any one person’s life that are “perfect” are few and far between. They are most often compensation for the rest of our life being ordinary. And ordinary isn’t a bad thing.



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