We all want to have talent and virtue in abundance. Aristotle believed that happiness is not possible without excellence or virtue. So give me talent and virtue. Lots of it. But is it possible to have or overuse talent and virtue to where they become a bad thing?
Aristotle also believed that virtues such as courage and temperance are best when exercised in balance. Too much courage, he says, makes someone rash and belligerent. Too much modesty can make someone shy. Extremes of virtue (too much or too little) then become a vice. Instead, Aristotle contends, that we should use reason to exercise our virtues like Goldilocks does: “just right” (he didn’t quite say it that way).
Similarly, the Clifton StrengthsFinder identifies the top 34 strengths that people use to be successful. We can think about our strengths as either being in the “balcony” or the “basement”. The former refers to optimal use of our strength, the latter when we are using our strength ineffectively or even counterproductively. For example, my Input strength gets in my way when I start asking too many questions. I need the data. The 411. This can be disruptive, annoying and intrusive when I’m in the basement with it, but I can also be a glorious source of useful information when my Input is exercised correctly.
Again, I would contend that reason, or I would call it wisdom, is what separates the basement from the balcony, the virtue from the vice. The right balance is circumstance-dependent, so the same formula doesn’t work in every situation. Wisdom and experience allows us to find that sweet spot as much as possible. But since every situation is different, we’re unlikely to hit it every time. Or are we?
Let’s suppose for a moment that all the talents and virtues are identifiable and quantifiable and that there are 100 of them. I have all 100 and I use them all the time in just the right manner. In other words, I’m perfect.
I know some of you think that you’re pretty darn close to that, or should be. I know that because I used to be that way too. This is perfectionism, and the need for perfectionism is the opposite of acceptance. Acceptance is an important virtue and as humans our reality is that perfection is neither possible nor desirable. First, perfection leaves no room for growth or improvement. By definition, that’s stagnation. What’s perfect about that? Second, stagnation and the smugness that often accompanies people who think they’re perfect is downright unappealing. . Third, everyone has a different interpretation of reality, and so even if you’re objectively “perfect,” someone will disagree. Finally, the tendency to believe one is perfect will prevent one from actually seeing where a fix is needed. So, which is more likely to be closer to perfect, something that is never improved upon, or something that undergoes continual improvement? It’s ironic, then, that belief in perfectionism actually encourages the opposite.
This is the folly of human nature. It takes wisdom to recognize and learn from it, forgiveness to feel OK about it, and humor to laugh at it. This is how we thrive.