The case against perfectionism—and for a disheveled elegant life

There is no need to brush every hair into place.
There is no need to brush every hair into place.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Nobody’s perfect. Still, some people aim for perfection in life and style. But philosophers, psychologists, and experts in aesthetics all suggest going for disheveled elegance instead if you want to live a more free and creative existence.

Perfectionism is problematic for many reasons. The not-so-humble-brag “I’m a perfectionist” can be a real drag for everyone. For one thing, it implies the perfectionist is trying harder than anyone else, which is an arrogant claim. More importantly, perfectionism can also be extremely psychologically damaging, leading to crippling anxiety and depression. It may even be an overlooked risk factor for suicide, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Review of General Psychology by York University psychologists.

Because impeccability is an impossible standard to attain, perfectionism drains both the perfectionist and their associates. Thomas Greenspon, a psychologist who has published research on the perils of perfectionism, argues that the “most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way.” He says there’s an important distinction between perfectionism, which is unhealthy, and the pursuit of excellence, which is admirable.

Apart from the psychological drawbacks of having impossible standards, perfectionism inhibits creativity, innovation, collaboration, and pleasure. Allowing for chaos and mistakes while maintaining high standards, however, can lead to unimaginably beautiful results in presentation, personality, and production.

Effortlessly elegant

Andrea Baldini, a professor of aesthetics and art theory at the Art Institute of Nanjing University in China, recently took up the cause of imperfection in The Philosopher’s Magazine. He argues that there’s a long and honorable tradition of elegant nonchalance, a disheveled approach to style that has aesthetic appeal and goes beyond the superficial, with deep implications for how we live.

Baldini argues that “formal originality” or “artful dishevelment” yields the best looks, works, and lives. He champions the concept of sprezzatura, or the art of effortless elegance, an Italian concept that’s been eloquently described by Quartz’s Anne Quito and was first articulated by the Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione. “[T]o conceal all art and make whatever is done and said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it” is the height of style, wrote Castiglione in 1528 in The Book of the Courtier.

Rather than straining for seemingly flawless presentation or production, Baldini says, we should aim for something more clever, albeit “imperfect.” He points to the 19th-century Irish writer Oscar Wilde—known for his elegance and razor wit—as an example of someone intelligently elegant, who embraced the unexpected and elevated good taste to the sublime in his style and writing. Wilde rarely said, wrote, or did what was expected. Yet he impressed high society as stylish, even though he was sometimes cutting, even impolite, and dressed flamboyantly.

Conventional good taste is fine but dull. A surprise twist, however—clashing prints, unusual mixes, unlikely experiences, esoteric interests—make outfits, artwork, and life special. Baldini explains that putting together elements in a seemingly random way may “at first sight appear incongruous or disharmonious.” But ultimately, this creates “an overall subtle and unique combination of distinct elegance.”

Korean model Ahreum Ahn is a perfect embodiment of this imperfect allure. Vogue on June 15 called Ahn “quite possibly the first It girl from Seoul, thanks to her intrinsic cool and phenomenal style.” An unusual beauty who doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously, Ahn has dyed slate-gray hair and doesn’t hesitate to show herself making mistakes or in an otherwise imperfect state. A video shows her breaking her makeup bottle while getting ready to go out, dancing around goofily while choosing an improbable outfit, and wearing a facial mask.

Ahn has access to all the coolest designer clothes but is prone to wearing vintage finds from thrift shops along with her high-end finery. Vogue writes, “Her closet contains an effortless mix of new and old, high and low: an incredible red leather Céline jumper with a faded Nirvana tee and … tie-dye socks from a Thai street market.” The magazine concludes that Ahn’s secret is “that she keeps it loose.”

Flawed and faded

Philosopher Yuriko Saito, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, believes that we need to cultivate a culture that appreciates the faded and flawed. “[O]ur aesthetic judgments based upon perfection and imperfection almost invariably have consequences that affect the quality of life, the social and political climate of a society, and the state of the world,” she writes in the journal Contemporary Aesthetics.

Saito points to two frameworks where problematic perfection arises. One is temporal, and has to do with the newness or freshness of an object, idea, or living thing. Temporal perfectionism favors whatever is brand-new. We replace old objects, ideas, and people with fresh things, notions, and heroes because newness seems to hold some promise of improvement. We buy new clothes and cars and items for our apartments though the old ones are still useful. We become infatuated with new proposals, like Elizabeth Holmes’ claim that she had created a new blood test, which turned out to be a lie. We idolize and elevate young stars like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, thinking they have something special that more experienced people do not—only to discover we’re wrong.

This can have severe consequences societally, giving rise to excessive consumption and consumerism, ignorance of valuable time-tested concepts, and disdain for any living thing that’s not in bloom—from fading flowers to misshapen fruits and vegetables to people past their youth. The rise of fast fashion, which had led to a glut of clothing consumption and an accompanying rise of clothing in landfills, is but one example of the pernicious effects of temporal perfectionism.

The other form of perfectionism that Saito describes is atemporal, related to “defects” or flaws. Atemporal perfectionism prizes only objects and things that have no defects, roughness, irregularity, disorder, or complexity; it can be seen in people’s preferences for perfectly manicured lawns or smooth, taut skin. But this way of thinking “impoverishes our aesthetic lives,” Saito writes. “It limits the range of sensuous qualities for appreciation.” If we learn to appreciate a wider range of qualities, we can enjoy more of what we have and what is out there in the world.

Extend this notion to people, and you vastly expand the number of enriching relationships that are possible. You can become someone who appreciates yourself and others for what they are, flaws and all, rather than holding them to standards that can’t be met and ignoring the value they actually do have. Saito writes:

This open-mindedness underlying imperfectionism also has a moral dimension. One of the necessary ingredients of our moral life is that we do not impose our ideas on others but rather become a good listener and respect the other’s reality, dignity, and integrity. As such, the capacity to appreciate diverse kinds of beauty shares the same attitude of humility and respect required in our moral life.

Saito notes too that perfectionism leads to discrimination, a narrow sense of who is acceptable and how humans should look. This in turn pushes people to destructive habits and actions, giving rise to eating disorders, steroid use, or a willingness to undergo plastic surgery, for example, to reshape whatever seems “wrong” about our bodies in an effort to conform with cultural norms.

History offers examples of cultures that have broken with this preoccupation with perfection. Saito explains that in the 16th century, Japanese tea ceremony masters rebelled against the prevailing taste of luxury and opulence by celebrating irregularity, rough surfaces, asymmetry, and defects in tea bowls, implements, and tea huts, giving rise to a new wabi-sabi aesthetic that prized simplicity, items marked by time and process. “These qualities often appear in the aging process or result from happenstance during the creative process … At other times, these effects are deliberately brought about by a destructive act of a tea master, such as breaking one handle of a vase,” Saito writes.

In a bold, adventurous, and creative life, the handle sometimes breaks without anyone trying. We make mistakes, certain efforts don’t succeed, and few relationships are without struggle. Nonetheless, we can appreciate the the wear and tear and the knowledge gained through difficult experiences because they are signs of spirit that have enriched us and made us wiser. The more we cultivate a love of what is really possible, the more we’ll cherish others with their inevitable imperfections, becoming more flexible and inclined to see beauty everywhere and in everyone.

As French philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, wrote in the 1770 edition of The Philosophical Dictionary, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” Better to appreciate the real than to tyrannically insist on things being impossibly just so.