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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse


I remember once chatting to our school chaplain about various things. My English was somewhat limited then (still is) and I often miscommunicated with people on various things. On this occasion, I said to our chaplain that I thought that it was better to be ‘good’ than to be ‘perfect’, He immediately corrected me on this, explaining to me that ‘perfect’ was the superlative of ‘good’ and that perfection was the highest form of excellence far superior to merely ‘good’. My English may have been faulty then but it was not so bad that I could not distinguish ‘good’ from ‘perfect’. After all, I was, and still am, a linguist. The point that I was trying to convey was this: it is more constructive to aim for reasonably high quality work than to be excessively pedantic on every single aspect of one’s work and labour on it obsessively. I still go by this, and it is not that I do not appreciate perfection (even though I have never ever attained it myself), but rather I believe that it is counter-productive to limit and confine one’s perspectives to one specific thing, an aetherial awe-inspiring standard which we term ‘perfection’, to the exclusion of everything else, since this approach necessarily restricts one’s vision and room for imagination. As the Buddha once famously said, ‘go for the Middle Way‘, or as we learn from Western Greek tragedy, ‘renounce excess/practise moderation.’ Both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions promote the adoption of moderation and self-restraint rather than extremist and obsessive tendencies, and for good reason, since in both cultures it is taught that extremist behaviour necessarily leads to ruin and self-destruction: in the case of the Buddha, it is documented that he made little, if not backward, progress both when he was enjoying the comforts of luxury as a prince and when he was practising austerity as a recluse, since neither approach gave him an effective state of mind to pursue spiritual goals. In Greek tragedy, it is similarly shown that extremist tendencies necessarily lead one to make impulsive and irreversible errors of judgement which inevitably lead to one’s downfall. By the same logic, the pursuit for ‘perfection’, despite it being a high ideal, is counter-productive since it confines one’s vision to a very specific goal which may only exist in utopia and not in the real world. Also, while it is good to be precise and exact, it is perhaps dangerous to be ultra-precise which necessarily delimits the range and scope of one’s work. There should (and must) be an insistence on excellence in one’s work, but there should also be some room for creative imagination and further development, since a piece of work which is too tightly crafted (a by-product of obsessive pursuit for excellence) is necessarily less sophisticated, and hence less impressive, than one that is more subtly constructed with numerous deliberately chosen suggestive codae which serve as implications. After all, spelling things out overtly all the time, while rhetorically forceful and effective, is necessarily less sophisticated than an argument which is controlled and layered. As the old saying goes, ‘let the wine breathe’. Our work, also, needs some breathing space, without which it is one-dimensional, bland, moldy and unpleasant. This was what I meant when I said ‘being ‘good’ was better than being ‘perfect’.’ So sorry that our chaplain did not understand what I was trying to say, though to be fair this is a kind of a logical contradiction bordering on fallacy, since how on earth could ‘good’ be better than ‘perfect’? Another paradox of life.

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