If there’s one thing that really bugs me about society today, it’s how little we care to look behind the scenes. Everywhere you look, there’s a carefully crafted illusion of perfection. The airbrushed models, talented front men, and consummate actors who have become the heroes of our time. Hugely successful people, hugely talented people (mostly at least!), but little to no attention paid to the people behind the mask.
Crucially, I think that many of us have forgotten that there even is a mask. It is almost as if celebrity culture has become our escape: we can see the success without needing to think about any of the struggle.
Then, we go and do exactly the same in our everyday lives. The facade of the social media highlights reel. The carefully cultivated personal image. That ongoing obsession to come across a certain way.
When everyone around us seems to be invariably happy and successful, we can feel extremely alone in feeling, on occasion, sad, inadequate. What we urgently need to remind ourselves, for the sake of our general wellbeing, is that the image of perfection is just that – an image.
Despite what you may see, there is nobody leading some sort of charmed life free of struggle, pain and negative emotion – even if we don’t like to talk or even hear about it.
In the words of the indomitable Elon Musk: “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.”
What we should know, however, is that seeing through the myth of perfection, uncomfortable as it may be, is actually a freedom. Freedom from the expectation of perfection, both in ourselves and others. Freedom from the isolation of wondering why we alone experience certain negative feelings. And, most of all, freedom from having to project an image that denies the fact that we are all human beings with highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.
There are plenty of prominent examples to illustrate what I mean. The aforementioned Elon Musk is one of my favourites. Worth around 15 billion, Musk is working on some of the most exciting and innovative projects out there: high-speed transportation; sustainable energy; Mars colonisation. And yet he’s failed repeatedly. And here it is all nicely summed up in an infographic from Kickresume:
What is more, he is in illustrious company, from Walt Disney to Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg to J.K. Rowling. Indeed, one has to wonder whether it is precisely the ability to accept failure and imperfection – and the will to carry on regardless – that has made these people what they are.
As Michael Jordan – a man so successful at basketball that he has the honour of being the only basketball player I’ve ever heard of – has famously commented:
“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The point I’m trying to drum home is that, no matter how successful or decorated our lives may be, they are never going to be perfect. We should not expect it. And we should certainly not be afraid to admit it either.
This isn’t just about prominent public figures; it’s something that holds true for us all, whoever we happen to be.
Take Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer, who kicked up a media storm when he published his “CV of Failures”. He sums up the whole issue perfectly:
“Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves…”
He then goes on to list, blow by blow, the degree programs he did not get into, the academic positions he did not get, the awards he did not receive, the papers he had rejected, and the funding proposals he had turned down. This is, remember, an extremely successful academic, and I can only admire his refreshing honesty in exposing the myth of perfection.
As for me, I’m no different. I was rejected by Oxford before I ever went to Cambridge. I make a comfortable, self employed living, and yet I’ve been turned down for more jobs than I can even recall. And if I can make any claim to growth and insight, I attribute it primarily to the problems and challenges I have faced in my own life.
In other words, I struggle and am imperfect – as we all are. There is no light without the dark, and that is simply part of life. We take the rough with the smooth, and we march on.
So here’s what I want you to do. Never compare yourself with others, or convince yourself they have a perfect life you don’t. Never think you are alone in your struggle and your imperfection. Accept it, and release yourself of the burden of the perfection myth. Every one of us is capable of living a successful, fulfilling, and rewarding life – if only we stop expecting it to be perfect!