Impossible Takes a Weak

“Difficult takes a day; impossible takes a week.” -Jay Z “My biggest weakness is that […]

“Difficult takes a day; impossible takes a week.” -Jay Z

“My biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist.” This clichéd job-interview response speaks to a wide variety of human frailties: our inability to recognize our own weakness; our inability to admit weakness to ourselves, even if we recognize it; our fear of others judging us for our weakness.

Well, I can admit it: I’m not a perfectionist. I never have been, and, frankly, I’ve never really tried. My biggest weakness is that I’m a dilettante. I’m great at getting things 80% done. I can write a first draft in minutes; I can plan a party, except for the food and decor; I can read difficult things and tell you about parts of them. In the past couple of years, I have acquired backyard chickens and bees, and I’m perfectly capable of tending to them, as long as nothing goes wrong.


“Dilettante,” then, is just a nice way of saying that I’m lazy. I like doing things up until the point where I no longer like doing them, and that point is typically the point where things get hard. I don’t want to read the chicken book again. I don’t want to memorize all of the potential diseases and their symptoms. I don’t want to have to reread that difficult chapter or look up that difficult word. Can’t I just enjoy myself?

The answer, of course, is no. You can’t just enjoy yourself. Every party needs a planner. Every revelry has a hangover. Every life is subject to death. Even if you could do something for pure enjoyment, the nagging thought pokes at you. Couldn’t you be doing something else with your time? You’ve got children to raise, dishes to wash, opportunities to seize.

But maybe these are all just excuses. Maybe there is a part of me that is afraid to finish a task because I’m afraid of being judged. You see, if I can just do 80% of the work, then I can tell everyone (and myself) that I could have done it right, but I just didn’t feel like finishing. Better to be judged inattentive than to finish a task and be judged incompetent.

Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to impossible tasks. Tell me that a problem can’t be solved, that a result can’t be achieved, and that’s what I want to work on. After all, there is no downside: When I fail, there is no skin off my back; it was impossible. There is a certain freedom in impossible tasks.

This is the gospel brought to us by J. Bryan Lowder, who has been writing an essential series on spring cleaning for Slate. Cleaning, as my wife will tell you, is a task that I rarely get even 80% done. I’m always smearing raw chicken water on the counter or forgetting to wipe up the milk with a wet rag after I soak it up with a dry one. I’m hopeless. But Lowder frees us from the burdens of perfection, telling us that “Your home will never be fully clean—and that’s OK:”

Spring cleaning’s most important lesson, in fact, may be that perfection is not only impossible, but even undesirable. Each year when I sit down to make the list of things I’d like to clean or improve in our house, I find it useful to remind myself that it was the cleanest it has ever been—or ever will be—the day my partner and I moved in. On that happy morning, the hardwood floor was gleaming with possibility, the refrigerator still alabaster in the absence of dirty hands, and the shower grout unsullied by humid human contact. But the moment we crossed the threshold, bringing with us a filth tsunami of scuff marks, skin cells, and spill potentialities, paradise was forever lost. No matter how hard we scrub, how diligently we wipe, how frequently we invoke the vacuum, we can never actually achieve perfection.

Paradise lost, indeed. Lowder reminds us that we ourselves are unclean, and that we will never get back to the Garden. Until we die:

There’s also something fundamentally healthful in treating your house like a life’s work instead of a problem that can be solved with one weird trick. Martha Stewart hints at this when she writes “households … are works in progress where there is always something needing immediate attention and always something more that can be done.” A perfectly clean, “finished” house is necessarily a dead thing.

Once we’ve faced down the impossible demand for a perfectly clean house—and learned that, to fulfill the demand, we must die—we are free to take up our brooms and sweep.

Michelangelo felt a similar freedom when he was asked to carve what became his statue of David:

David was originally intended for the buttress of the Florence Cathedral. But William E. Wallace figures that Michelangelo knew that at a weight of 8.5 tons, devising a proper support system for the sculpture would be “an impossible task.” The artist “realized the impossibility of the job from the earliest moment, even before he began carving the figure,” insists Wallace. “This realization, in effect, liberated him.”

Yesterday, a hummingbird flew into my house and couldn’t figure out how to fly back out. It was too high for me to reach, so, for six hours, it buzzed from ceiling to wall to window, not realizing that it was never going to break through to the outside. Finally, after six hours, it fell to the floor exhausted. I scooped it up in my hands and placed it outside on a table. In the fresh air, it once again moved its wings and flew away.

May we all be liberated by our impossible tasks.


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