Pursuing Perfection Is the Point

We should strive for continual improvement but not focus on achieving it.

Posted May 04, 2017

Can you ever really have a 'perfect' martial arts movement? One of my karate students asked me this at the end of training the other night. We had been working on different aspects of a sequence of movement patterns--a kata--for a number of classes. I emphasized how we must always try to improve what we are doing and that a kata learned early in a training career must be constantly improved as our skills improve. In other words, always do your best to do your best.

I mentioned that I still practice and try to improve kata that I learned over 30 years ago. And that my own teachers, who have many decades more experience, continue to improve and work to better their technique. Sounds like a lot of practice! It's a process of improvement for sure, and process is the point, not just outcomes.

Can you every really have perfection? My answer was "no". Instead, perfection is a moving target because as we get better we also get better at getting better. So, we are always chasing an ever-receding target. But this isn't a negative view, rather the chasing is the point of the training. This is all about journey and very much not about the actual destination.

This approach has a long history in martial arts training. As Kenji Tokitsu wrote in his excellent book Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings, in the days of samurai and bushido in Japan circa 1600, "martial arts were characterized by striving for perfection..." And in this context of the warrior code in a warrior society, perfection was taken rather literally. This is not the best approach for success in a peaceful society aimed at health and life.

Instead, a study in 2014 highlights the need to focus on the ongoing pursuit of perfection in the tasks we are doing--one that allows for and accepts the nature of the error in the process--rather than literally achieving perfection. Sanna Nordin-Bates and her colleagues in Sweden and England, examined perfectionism in dance training and performance in young adults across a year.

I think the key finding from their work is that "perceptions of a task-involving climate in training/performing environments may encourage striving for excellence and perfection without promoting excessive concerns regarding their attainment." So, try to improve towards 'perfect' but recognize it's an iterative process that you can never really achieve. Deriving satisfaction from the journey itself is the key.

Striving for perfection without the negative trappings that can happen in perfectionism can be a healthy approach for success. For this to be applied in a healthy and sustainable way it's critical that the emphasis be placed on the pursuit versus the actual achievement of perfection. That is the things we can do to improve regardless of the improvements we can see.

Approaching perfection like this also allows for the variance in our performances that will happen as we train, get injured, recover from injury, and get older. Truly holistic lifespan approach to physical activity, skill, and character development should be the true goals of all activities but absolutely for martial arts. The idea of striving for perfection can be applied to any domain and healthy performance can truly thrive in this way.

These are things I try to consider everyday in my own training, when I receive guidance from my teacher, and when I share my knowledge with my trainees. It is difficult to be gentle with ourselves as we strive to be the best we can be. But it is a process worth the effort so long as we can see the process as a journey. At the end of the day what we really are perfecting is approach to our task and our approach to life. These are outcomes that can benefit many aspects of our lives.

As my teacher always says to me "gambatte kudasai"--please do your best on your journey.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)