Maybe we should blame our computers. Since we all have these devices now, we have come to take a certain level of perfection for granted, even when our own input into the machine has been imperfect. Make a typo or spell something wrong, the machine corrects our mistake. Feed into the machine our imperfect photos with alien red eyeballs and poor lighting and terrible framing, and the machine improves them. The machine will fix it in “post,” as they say about video and film. If not perfect now, the machine will make it more perfect later.
Perfection was on the mind of millions of golf fans this last weekend as 22 year-old Rory McIlroy seemed to play perfect golf at the U.S. Open. Not just once or twice, but four days in a row. Like a computer-driven machine, the young golfer would hit a bogey only to immediately self-correct with a birdie on the very next hole. Records were being shattered and commentators were beside themselves in looking for superlatives. His swing was perfect. The results were perfect.
But our expectations of perfection in 21st century life seem more and more to be limited to individual performance. As soon as we look to anything requiring humans to move or work together in some collective manner, our expectations go way down. Individuals can be magnificent, but systems and organizations are always disappointing. The airline personnel were courteous and helpful, but our plane was late and our baggage is missing. Our kids have great teachers, but there is something dysfunctional about the school. Kobe is a breathtaking performer, but something ails “the Laker organization.”
How is it that we seem to be raising the bar of individual performance and even perfection, and at the same time feeling depressed about the erosion of what we can do working together in organizations, corporations, systems, networks and governments? Why can’t we get all this great individual performance to move forward in a unified way? Rodney King wondered why we all couldn’t get along. We now appear to be at a point where we can’t figure out why we can’t get along and work together to get things done.
We may find several elements in play in looking for that answer. Unpleasant as it might be, a lot of things are quite simply breaking down. In some cases its neglect (failing infrastructure) and new competition (the postal service vs. e-mail). But in other cases it’s because previously well-operating systems cannot withstand attack by the forces of business and money that seek to remove such cost-related variables as fairness and justice.
Not to be too simplistic about it, but the powers of money look at the rest of the world and ask, “Why can’t we also get Americans to work for 11 cents an hour?” These kinds of imperatives compel such things as taking away collective bargaining, and with that remove simple human dignity from the equations. Wal Mart can do whatever it wants in its management of female employees, and the business-friendly Supreme Court will remove any shot of collective redress. And then, I imagine, Wal Mart will try to impress upon female individuals in their organization the need to strive for high performance. Work hard, work long … be perfect individuals… and by the way you mean so little to us that we will resist a basic fair humanity in our relationship with you. That’s not a recipe for excellence. That doesn’t spell “team.”
Another element may be that excellence/perfection by high achieving individuals working together in new and emerging organizations is throttled by some of the same forces. Virent Energy Systems in Madison, Wisconsin has recently made two breakthroughs that give every indication we could all have a more perfect future. One is the development of a chemical made from plant sugars that can be used to produce plastic. Their new chemical would replace a petroleum-based chemical currently used in the production of bottles, packaging materials and fibers. The second advance is Virent’s announcement of finding a “biogasoline” that can be produced from nonfood crops like corn stalks and pine tree needles.
Now, pop quiz: Who would want to suppress bringing these kinds of products into our lives? You hear about cleaner energy sources, but nothing seems to change at your gas pump. Why would that be, if we know that excellence-seeking individuals are working around the clock collectively with other excellence-seeking individuals to make a better world? Will Madison-based Virent find a way around big oil, only to be told by Wisconsin’s repellant governor that Virent’s employees cannot have collective bargaining?
Last week my personal computer refused to operate. At first I was all “Why me?” about it, as though mystical forces had something to do with it. In fact, it looks like I just wore out the machine by leaving it on at night. Working it without caring for it, you might say. If it can be fixed, I’ll strive to be fair to my computer. I’m not perfect, but now I understand that my computer and I won’t grow together and strive for perfection unless I quit treating it badly.