Whenever I write on the topic of doing your best, I can count on receiving comments about the dangers of perfectionism. It’s a valid concern but one I feel is misplaced.

Recently I looked over a text I wrote and subsequently published five years ago. Back in 2009, I was pleased with how it turned out and felt I had done a good job. As I went through it a couple of weeks ago with eyes that have five more years of writing and editing experience, I found several typos, even though three separate people had proofread the text multiple times. I found awkward wording, clumsy transitions, and a lot of clutter that didn’t add anything to the text.

I planned to reuse this text in a new work, so I cleaned it up to add greater clarity for the reader and to reflect my current level of writing. Here’s my question: am I a perfectionist in doing this or simply a more knowledgeable writer who cares enough to bring an earlier work up to speed?

If a modeler tears out a portion of old scenery and rebuilds it, is that modeler a perfectionist or simply more skilled and dissatisfied with his earlier work? If you rebuild an older model to reflect your current skill level, are you a perfectionists for doing so?

Striving to do one’s best work is not perfectionism. Perfectionism is a state of mind that says nothing is ever acceptable as it is. Human perfection is an abstract illusion in my view. From a spiritual viewpoint, God alone is perfect and we’re not God.

This hobby, indeed the culture as a whole, has settled for things that are good enough in attitude and in quality. Indeed, we’ve made a virtue out of it and patted ourselves on the back for being so practical. I think this all sets up a wrong set of expectations but maybe it’s just me.

There’s pragmatism and then there’s high standards.
I have a friend who models to very high personal standards. Tony will undersize the wire diameter on his HO diesel handrails to account for the thickness of the finished paint layer, so that the painted rail appears accurately sized. (Visually speaking he’s actually allowing for twice the thickness of paint, on both the top and bottom of the handrail.)

Most who read that will slap their forehead and loudly proclaim: “NO WAY would I go to that extreme!” There are model builders and there are layout builders and often the two have very different mindsets and vastly different objectives for their hobby time. With that understood, three things stand out for me here.

First, most people, myself included, wouldn’t even know how the paint thickness impacts the finished appearance of a model. Tony knows this and more.

Second, this level of attention and consideration isn’t that extreme in Tony’s view. In fact, it’s a bit routine for him because he has spent many years improving his skills to this level of proficiency. It’s also how he approaches life in general. By temperament and by choice, he gives 100% of himself to whatever he sets his mind on doing.

Third, he cares deeply about the quality and presentation of any of work he puts his name to. This care is also reflected in the depth of knowledge and research he brings to a modeling project. Tony spends time, lots of time, in the real world studying, photographing and, when he can, measuring a subject locomotive. He knows about diesel details most of us aren’t even aware exist.

I don’t consider striving for high personal standards the equivalent to being a perfectionist. Tony finishes his projects to his satisfaction and moves on. A perfectionist never finishes anything because he is constantly chasing something that can’t be caught and deludes only himself in the process of thinking perfection is possible.

I think people shy away from doing their best because they don’t want to be labeled or misunderstood. No one wants to wants to be the target of the self-righteous hobby critics when they utter those dreaded words: “You’re an elitist. Wha, ya think ya better than us? My modelin’ is just as good as anybody’s.”

A craftsman like Tony doesn’t have anything to prove. He’s already proved it to himself and to those who matter to him like a mentor or fellow craftsman. A perfectionist, on the other hand, always has something to prove because his ego is tied up in knots over how he looks to others. Perfectionism is seldom about the work as much as it is about the person.

A craftsman just gets on with the work and lets it speak for him.