Perfection and The Theory of Minimalism

The Theory of Minimalism 

I developed a personal Theory of Minimalism when I was in high school. This theory is actually counterintuitive to its title and was born out of the necessity that I simply had too many things on my plate: Work, Study, Homework, Sports, Girlfriend, Friends, and Recreation. Things were really beginning to pile up to the point I could not have all these things going on simultaneously while still expecting to be any good at any of them. The situation called for learning how to prioritize and then how to streamline personal efficiencies.

The theory, simply stated, indicates that in any endeavor a person should do just as much as he or she needs to do in order to get it right the first time while producing quality as the final product. The time it takes for each project is open ended, but doing anything beyond the essentials required to reach the goal is strictly forbidden. One has to prioritize for oneself.

I first put this theory to the test first in the tenth grade when the science teacher assigned us to find a dozen different trees leaves, then identify them and preserve them in a book. It was harder than I had anticipated requiring quite a bit of library research to tell the fine differentials between some of the leaf species.

The science teacher was an obese spinster. She always sported cherry red lipstick, short rolled up curly blond hair and rouge pancake makeup, which made her look like a corpulent Betty Boop, but which also could not belie a predictably underlying volatile temper.

She was also profoundly lacking in the gift of humor, and perpetually terrorized her students with a passionate desire to evoke perfection. She especially seemed to hate the boys, which could be accounted for by one of several reasons: She never got laid, she was a lesbian or she was abused and dumped by multiple boyfriends. Or perhaps it was a combination of being gay and still never getting laid. Who knows? Maybe she simply hated boys.

I turned in the leaf project, and as she was thumbing through it back and forth, she abruptly looked up to say:

  • But there are only twelve leafs here.
  • That’s all you wanted, wasn’t it?
  • Well don’t put yourself out, then. And these had all better be correctly identified or your grade is going to be relatively poor.

I got the project back with an A, but also with a note stating it could have been an A+ if there were more leaves.

Quite the contrary I thought, as if the thirteenth leaf was wrong, there was no way her statement could ever mathematically be true.

A+: For extra effort.

A- : For misidentification of the extra effort.

What she did not seem to understand was that I tediously labored over the project to be sure to the nth degree that all the leaves I submitted were correctly identified. In doing so I had spent more time on the project than would have been required to haphazardly put 20 leaves in the book and, as many of my classmates had done, then cavalierly misnamed a few.

The same thing happened when I went for a belated but mandatory interview with the College Dean during my junior year at Duke University. I wonder to this day why he waited three years to look at my file anyway, and chalked it up to something he had to list in his own performance appraisal: Finally: Interviewed every student.

He reviewed my curriculum portfolio, looked up and said:

  • But you’ve only signed up for 90 total credits

Obviously pointing out that I had already successfully done 57 of them I said:

  • Isn’t that what is needed to graduate?”
  • Yes, but it’s exactly the minimum. So what if you fail one? That will leave you short. You won’t graduate on time.
  • But if I have fewer classes to worry about, doesn’t that leave more time to do them all with higher quality?

What I was really thinking about was how much he was insulting my intelligence and my capabilities.

The sarcastic response from him was:

  • Well. Don’t put yourself out too much, then.

He did not seem to get it at all because I had already gone through my bad academic period, which fortunately occurred earlier than later, and I was hell bent on bringing up my GPA. I had gone from lackadaisical partying and experimentation with psychedelic drugs to living like a cloistered monk in library study Carroll seclusion.

I had seen the light for reasons the Dean could never even remotely begin to know, and was determined to get myself into a medical school somewhere. By the end of college I had brought my GPA up from 2.8 to 3.6. Then when I eventually did interview at Medical Schools, there was usually a predictable query about the sophomore dip, which I lied about. But to my advantage was the interviewer expressing satisfaction at the obvious turnaround. Upward trends are always counted favorably.

Being a student of Minimalism requires one to only do as many things as one can reasonably do well; even if it is the case that one can only do one thing well. What that one particular thing might be is totally irrelevant. Being a good mother is a great example. It’s the most difficult job in the world.

Tiger Woods exemplified the theory at the level of professional sports.

Minimalism is a discipline that tests personal limits, goals, perspective and the ability to pace oneself. It mandates that one should never bite off more than one can chew, or never start anything that cannot be reasonably finished. It also ultimately abhors the deadly sin of Sloth.

But in the final analysis, the most significant benefit of subscribing to this theory is that it will ultimately train a person to develop the ability to quickly sift through all the bullshit, to immediately see the forest for the trees, and to get to the bottom line of anything in an expeditious manner. In the long run it simply saves a lot of time.

As a bonus it can also be easily applied to end of life issues. For example, anyone who fell away from organized religion and considered church to be an unmitigated waste of time, as I did, but who yet may want that guarantee of being sent along to heaven with the Mission Priest, only has to think the words “I’m sorry” in his or her final nanosecond of life.

It is certainly a crapshoot that the final scenario may not permit this fleeting thought, for example, if one is blindsided from behind, shot in the head, hit and killed by a bus, or vaporized in an exploding airplane or nuclear blast. But then again a nanosecond can be a very long time indeed.

Trust me on this one. It is probably worth taking the chance and I can guarantee the success of it. It is written in stone.


For there shall be more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents, than over ninety nine just persons who need no such repentance.

(The Bible)


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