Striving after Perfection

I'm thinking about the time it takes to refine one's craft, to pursue perfection in the arts. This is a different matter from perfectionism, which is a limitation.

Some pursue the refinement of their craft through productivity, regularly turning out work that grows in competence and effect as they go. They are up early, their drafts are submitted on time, and when the time comes, their piece is ready. Even if it is not perfect. The next project will be better. They find their audience and their audience finds them, and it is a mutually beneficial enterprise. Assuming one stays away from the sauce, this is the pathway of the successful artist.

Then there are those who pursue their craft, whether deliberately or not, with no regard for audience. They get a perfect idea and an idea for perfection in their head,  and they pursue only this idea, sometimes in fits and starts, other times zealously. Enthusiasm grows when others hear of the inspiration, but when the moment comes, the piece is not ready, because it is not perfect. The audience dissipates and is all but gone when the piece finally arrives in its splendid condition. There of course is no one left to witness. This is the path of the frustrated artist.  

Or is it?

Thoreau's Walden is a treasure trove that many of us plunder from time to time for help with seeing the big picture. Near the end of the book, Thoreau gives one of his most famous lines: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." This is a great quote, but it is not the part I remember. What I remember is the mythic Indian tale that follows as an illustration of the idea. And I share it in full (with paragraphs added for ease of reading):

There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

"He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.

"As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stock in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times.

"But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?”

Henry David Thoreau, the Artist from the City of Concord