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Halving the distance

I said something vaguely profound to my friend Amy in our GroupMe chat the other day. To me, I told her, “Life is about constantly halving the distance between yourself and perfection.”

I like that. Nice job, me.

That said, this isn’t an original concept. It’s a lot like the Pareto principle, or the concept of the asymptote from mathematics. Clearly, far more intelligent people than me have been thinking along these lines for a long time.

But this iteration of the idea works for me. It puts me in mind of a piece of paper, infinitely folded — always the same piece of paper, but tighter and tighter, ever-closer to its ideal form. Yet with every halving, all the way to infinity, you’re still left with paper that can be folded in half.

You’ll never be perfect. That’s an immutable, frustrating fact. As creatures of comprehension, we’ve got this concept of perfection strung up like a gold carrot. And it’s dangling right in front of our noses, we imagine — but it’s always much further away than we think.

That’s because the closer to it we get to perfection, the more honed our sense of it becomes. As a novice wielding a kitchen knife, I watched my own clumsy efforts and I thought, If I can just cut one something into perfect-sized pieces, that will be enough. As an intermediate home sous chef, that idea is no longer satisfying to me. Someday, I hope my dreams of cutting whatever is put on the chopping block into perfect-sized pieces will make me smile fondly and shake my head at my own lack of ambition. At the beginning, though, that would have been such a horribly specific concept that I wouldn’t have known where to start, and probably would have just given up.

My trick to life — and when I say “life,” I mean “self-satisfaction, a real sense of internal joy, and a time in this universe I plan to look back on proudly” — is not to be perfect. It’s to measure the distance between myself and perfect, and aim to cut it in half with any given self-improvement.

Just half. You just have to be 50% better than you were before you set out to improve. Fifty percent better at communicating with your partner. Fifty percent better at writing a short story. Fifty percent better at remembering to do your self-care routine.

Fifty’s a lot, isn’t it? Not if you remember that the bulk of learning to do something is doing the small, foundational actions over and over. Stretching until you’re flexible enough to do the splits. Tossing rice in a pan until you can flip like a line cook. Loping around your neighborhood until you’re ready to run that marathon. Writing continuously in five-minute bursts until you can crank out a novel in a month.

Besides, when I say “constantly,” I don’t mean to imply that every single instance of working to improve something, you can or should be 50% better than the last time you engaged. I mean that every action that you take to improve yourself, long- or short-term, should strive to make you at least 50% better than before you did the thing. Or it’s probably not worth your self-improvement time, to be perfectly blunt.

Fifty percent better than “unable to cook anything” is “able to cook one thing well enough to serve it to other people.” You go from nothing to something, modest though it may be. Your next step can feel a little bigger, a little closer to perfection: go from “able to cook one thing well” to “able to cook a week’s worth of meals well.” Then to “able to cook a menu’s worth of meals well.” Then to “able to cook nearly anything from one cuisine well.” And so on. Moving from branch to branch on a tree of learning hinges on your willingness to conquer the foundational things, one at a time.

You’ll feel a 50% increase. It’ll be measurable, in time or love or success. You’ll be able to point to a time before your change and say, Look, this is where I was before, and here’s where I am now. Halve the distance. Be better, in humble ways.

Published inPersonal thoughts