A long time ago, in a place far far away, I was an intern at an architectural signage fabrication shop. The owner of the company paired me, the young know nothing, with his father, the wise elderly teacher. The wise father said to me on my first day, “I want you to drill a hole in the top left corner of this sheet of plastic. Then drill a hole in 4 more sheets of the exact same size plastic. Then find the right size bolt and a nut, and put the bolt through the holes and fasten them all together with the nut.”
I took the first sheet of acrylic (plexiglass), measured one inch down from the top, and one inch in from the left. I drilled a hole, I think it was a bit larger than a quarter-inch in diameter, thinking that would be the ideal size hole for the bolt I’d put through all five sheets.
I then grabbed the second sheet, measured the same amount down and over, and moved on to the third sheet. This was my first assignment. I wanted it to be perfect. All I ever wanted was for everything I did to be excellent and perfect, or at least how I thought perfect should be.
Soon after that came the fourth and fifth sheets. I put masking tape on the acrylic so as to not fracture the fine edges of the hole in the plastic as I drilled. I drilled slowly so as to not fracture the sheet of plastic. I measured each sheet, in the same way, thinking that they would all fit together perfectly.
I found my bolt and my nut and selected a length that would be a perfect to bolt all the sheets together with the nut. Feeling almost triumphant, I stacked them all together and attempted to slide the bolt through all five sheets, when the wise old man came by for a look-see. Naturally, for some reason, I couldn’t align the holes and the corners, and still, fit the bolt through. Either the corners were aligned, or the holes were aligned… but not both.
The old man saw the defeated look on my face and asked, “… whatcha got goin’ on there? Looks like you’re having a little problem.” All I could think about was how I failed my first assignment at my new job, and ruined five sheets of expensive Plexiglass. I told the old man I wanted it to be perfect, but there I was with a stack of ruined plexy and enough disappointment in myself to squash any widespread indignation I normally would have in a situation like that.
The old man said, “…do it again.” To which I replied, “I can’t. I don’t want to ruin any more material. I don’t know why it didn’t work. I don’t want to mess up again.” He just looked down at the material. Examined the holes. “…this is nice work…good, clean, holes,” he said. He never looked up at me and said, “Do it again.”
I just looked back at him confused about his invitation to fail again. Me, a legend in my mind. I couldn’t even drill one stupid hole in five sheets and put a bolt through it. “I can’t do it…” I said. “You can,” he replied, “and I’ll show you how.” He grabbed five more sheets, and he then created a corner jig on the drill press. He slid each corner in the jig and drilled, and each hole was perfect, in the same location on each sheet.“This way your drill will go in the same place on every corner” he said.
The drill bit he selected for the holes was a little thicker than the one I selected. Definitely thicker than the bolt by a bit more than what I had figured on. “Bring a sheet and bolt over here. You see how tightly the bolt slides through the hole you drilled? Precise, nice and snug. No extra room for error. That’s your problem here. You were shooting for a perfect fit when life is filled with slight imperfections that often layer up like these plexiglass sheets. Each time you drilled your perfect snug holes… they were a bit off and different on each sheet. So when you stacked em’ up and tried to bolt em’ together, there wasn’t enough room to account for natural errors.”
I argued with him of course, claiming a larger hole is sloppy work and isn’t precise. He simply said, “… you need to always allow a little wiggle room. It’s called tolerance. How much tolerance you allow depends on each unique situation, but your way, each individual sheet won’t line up properly. My way, giving the hole in each sheet a little extra room, allows for any unintentional errors, so that ultimately the bolt will fit through them all easily, and the corners can be allowed to line up perfectly. Allowing for tolerance, wiggle room, and a little play enables all the separate sheets to remain individual but fit together as one perfectly.”
Even now, I still shoot for perfect. And in almost every encounter, every project, every relationship, my perfect rarely seems to work. However, when I remember to be tolerant and give people and projects a little wiggle room, things seem to work out better.
It’s a funny thing about perfect. Probably a lot like gambling I think. The first time you place a bet and feel the exhilaration of winning oodles of money, and forever more chase that initial burst of success. Similarly, the feeling of things coming together perfectly is a hard master to compromise on. Perfect might have seemed to happen from time to time, but the chase for it always in all things is a fool’s errand.
These days I see perfection in the flaws. Habitually I still complain to myself about the opportunities for improvement that glare at me. Allowing wiggle room and making the flaws work in my favor has become my new perfect.
At another time and in another place, two neighbors lived side by side. The one neighbor on the left was extremely considerate of the neighbor on the right. However, the neighbor on the right ironically had serious problems with boundaries.
One time, the neighbor on the right put up a fence dividing the two properties. Naturally, the fence was installed one foot over the plot line, crossing over onto the left neighbor’s property. Similarly, the two properties shared a driveway between the two houses, and the neighbor on the right, always parked too far to the left, preventing the neighbor on the left from parking their car in their own driveway.
Oblivious to their own faults, the neighbor on the right needed to go out-of-town for the weekend and presumptuously asked the neighbor on the left to watch their house for them while they were away. Taken off guard, the neighbor on the left agreed. However, once the neighbors on the right, departed, the neighbor on the left decided to enter the right neighbor’s house and snoop around.
Without fear of reprisal, the left neighbor commented to themselves about the squalor that the right neighbors lived in. Enormous amounts of dust, dog hair, and dead bugs were found in every corner. A putrid odor permeated the whole house. Dishes were left in the sink piled high with the past week’s food cemented onto the plates.
The left neighbor thought about how they could never live like the right neighbor. Then the left neighbor noticed that the right neighbor must have taken off in a hurry, as they abandoned an open bag of Oreos on the kitchen table.
The left neighbor saw the silver lining and helped themselves to a handful of the crunchy creme-filled chocolate reward. The left neighbor stood there and thought as they twisted open the cookie and scraped the tight white creme across the top of their protruding front four bottom teeth.
They thought about how that neighbor’s fence imposed on the left neighbor’s property. They thought about the inconvenience of the right neighbor parking too far over. The left neighbor wondered why they even agreed to do the right neighbor a favor and watch their house, given all the offenses they chose to endure.
The left neighbor had another Oreo and realized that when two people live side by side for a very long time, they each have to have tolerance for each other, as the option of feuding with one living so close would be treacherous, stressful and the removal of any sense of harmony at home.
The left neighbor took another Oreo to-go, and thought to themselves… when it comes to making things work, it’s all about tolerance.