The pursuit of perfection in an imperfect world
“Perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” – Angelique Arnauld
We live in a world where the end justifies the means and it’s better to be effective than efficient, where the perils of being a perfectionist are too well known and where the most important questions are whether we have a deal and whether the buying and selling are smoothly proceeding to it’s logical conclusion, (possibly amidst rapturous applause). In this scheme of things, perfection is not a serious priority. Naturally it is hazardous to talk about the pursuit of perfection but I nevertheless intend doing so, inspired as I am by a chance encounter that left an indelible impression.
What is Perfection?
Perfection has various connotations. Aristotle talked of it in terms of excellence and completeness and of being capable of achieving the intended purpose. Since then, there have been many different ways of looking at it - Mathematics, Physics Chemistry and economics all have specific applications and connotations for the word. Perfection is often talked off in terms of excellence, but common understanding would imply a state of flawlessness and completeness as well. Technology on the other hand demonstrates the wonderful utility of imperfection as seen in the semiconductor, which depends on imperfection for its functional utility. Rather than getting lost in the semantics, it would seem better to make use of our common sense understanding of perfection - as the state of an attribute or feature, which functions flawlessly to achieve the intended purpose, and cannot be improved further, given our present level of knowledge / technological capability.
Practitioners of the pursuit of perfection are rare in this result-oriented world and the ones you come across, would be quick to have you believe that perfection is a distant goal which can involve you in an endless lifelong pursuit. Perfection, it would seem, can be pursued but never attained, for if man becomes perfect, then what about God?
The chance encounter that inspired and emboldened me involved neither a superhero nor a wizard. He was merely a service technician working for the franchisee firm of a large washing machine company. My encounter with him was the result of a request made by me to send a technician over to help with the installation of or washing machine after we shifted our residence. From the moment this guy got working I thought I saw something very different. I have seen dozens of such technicians over the years. Most of them are eager to see the job done as fast as possible so that one more customer call could be ticked off. But this man seemed to have all the time in the world. He wasn’t in the least bit lazy nor was he inefficient, but he kept systematically going over the work at hand so that he missed no detail. What seemed a simple installation job was soon turning out to be like a delicate brain surgery.
“Sorry Sir! Your stand is badly rusted and needs to be replaced-“ he announced with the gravity of an expert cardiac doctor describing the condition of your heart.
“Replaced? What if I continue with this?” I asked him.
“You could, Sir. My job to tell you. The decision is yours.”
“I am not going to spend on a new stand now” I said firmly.
“Fine Sir, we’ll manage with this,” he assured.
“He started the installation process and went through it methodically replacing the worn out washers and adding new screws for the back panel as he noticed that a few were missing.
“These screws are very important. Sir. Otherwise this will give a rattling sound.”
“I know. But some of the mechanics that came in the past were very casual and threw these screws around you see. That’s how they got lost.”
“I know Sir. Some of these young boys are more keen to finish the job – even if some screws are misplaced. That’s because they don’t realize what a difference it makes to the customer. That’s why I carry these spare screws and washers and pins. These are very small items and don’t cost anything but can make a huge difference. Whenever I notice something missing or worn out I replace it. This is my own initiative, Sir.“
He carried on with the installation and then looked up. “Don’t mind, Sir. I may take a little extra time compared with others. But I will ensure that your machine works perfectly.”
Every bolt and washer, every pin and bearing was checked carefully and replaced or tightened before he finally took out the stand for a final check.
“I have to remove the polythene wrapping. It should have been removed three years ago by the technician who installed it when it was new. He didn’t do it and that’s why the water falling around was trapped within its folds to make the stand get rusted.”
He lifted up the washing machine and moved the stand away. Then he lifted the stand up to remove the polythene from it.
“Oh no, Sir!” he screamed. “No arguments – it has to be replaced. See Sir this portion is completely corroded and breaking off. Your machine cannot be stable on this.”
“OK” I said, resigned to the idea of spending the money that I was trying not to. “When can you get it for me?”
“When I get back to my office, I’ll check and confirm its availability and call you back, Sir.”
He called back as promised and brought the stand after two days. My machine was working like its new and even if I was blind I could have sensed the difference.
While paying the cost of the stand, I told him that I was very impressed and would be happy to write to his superiors in his office.
“No. No, Sir! Not required - they know it. Last twelve years I am working like this and they know the way I work. They know that any customer I go to will remain with us. They are all aware. So there is nothing to worry. In fact, my only worry is - what I do, should not be improper or substandard in the eyes of God who is watching me every moment.” He wished me and took leave leaving an indelible impression.
What then was his payoff for the pursuit of perfection? A vague sense of contentment and peace, I guess. He will not appear on television or make the morning headlines, but he was a maestro at his work and I wouldn’t mind watching a repeat performance anytime. For now, he reminded me of the lines in Elegy written in a country churchyard by Thomas Gray:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.