The Limits of Potential – Part 2, The Search for Perfection

Imagine a seed for a gum tree. We can plant that in good soil, provide good sunlight and give it regular water. In a good environment that tree will grow to be big and strong. Or will it?

Defects in the DNA of the seed may cause problems with the strength of the trunk, a lack of wind will result in a similar lack of strength, no bacteria and fungus in the soil will lead to poor absorption of minerals and water being given only from above will cause a very shallow root system to grow as there is no benefit to a deep root system in the face of no wind and no requirement to suck up water from deep down. This tree is significantly flawed. Yet it is still a gum tree, and beautiful gum tree.

Given a tree in a good environment, and with good DNA, the tree will grow towards the source of sunlight. If the tree has neighbours who block the overhead sunlight, the tree will grow towards the source of light, bending as it grows. I could similarly trim any branch that leaves the main trunk, steering the growth to be upward and very straight. For me, that is useful as I wish to use this tree for its wood and I will get longer straight beams from this tree. But is it a beautiful gum tree still? Is this the definition of perfection? In one sense the straight tree is perfect for my purposes, in another sense the shape of the bent tree is aesthetically interesting and I can draw it, or create a swing from it, or just admire the intricacies of life as it twists and turns.

As the tree grows, it has no idea of perfection, of the optimum shape for a tree in an ideal setting. It simply grows as best it can with what it has such that it optimises its water intake, its nutrient intake, its solar intake and resists wind, avoids poor soil, avoids other plants wherever possible. The shape the tree takes, the strengths it has, the beauty it forms are all the natural progression of the nature of the tree in the nurture of its environment. The tree is beautiful.

The tree does not mistake an ideal of perfection for its optimal life given the environment and genetics it has. Optimal is the goal for perfection is but an illusion.

We humans are very much like this tree, except we often mistake optimal for less than perfect, chasing perfect as if it were real. We all live optimally given our circumstances.

We may want more than our current level of optimal has. We humans can change our circumstances to change what optimal looks like. To do this we need to spend some resources, changing our soil, our water, the nearness to other trees, the amount of sunlight we have and how much wind we endure. Some of us have had hard luck with nature and nurture and barely have the resources to maintain what we have. Change will be slow and hard.

If we look at an image of perfection, we will feel far from capable, far from worthwhile and full of mistakes. This is an illusion. The choice of how to proceed is now up to you.

Look, choose, act.