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Pursuing Perfection

“The Gods can see them.”

The greatest sculptor of ancient Greece, Phidias, around 440 bc made the statues that to this day, 2,400 years later, still stand on the roof of the Parthenon in Athens. When Phidias submitted his bill, the city accountant of Athens refused to pay it. “These statues stand on the roof of the temple, and on the highest hill in Athens. Nobody can see anything but their fronts. Yet, you have charged us for sculpturing them in the round, that is, for doing their backsides, which nobody can see.” “You are wrong,” Phidias retorted. “The Gods can see them.”

Whenever people ask me which of my books 1 consider the best, I smile and say, “The next.” I do not, however, mean it as a joke. 1 mean it the way Verdi meant it when he talked of writing an opera at eighty in the pursuit of a perfection that had always eluded him. Though I am older now than Verdi was when he wrote Falstaff, I am still thinking and working on two additional books, each of which, I hope, will be better than any of my earlier ones, will be more important, and will come a little closer to excellence.

ACTION POINT: Pursue perfection in your work, however elusive.

Decision Objectives

A decision, to be effective, needs to satisfy the boundary conditions.

A decision process requires clear specifications as to what the decision has to accomplish. What are the objectives the decision has to reach? In science these are known as “boundary conditions.” A decision, to be effective, needs to be adequate to its purpose. The more concisely and clearly boundary conditions are stated, the greater the likelihood that the decision will indeed be an effective one and will accomplish what it set out to do. Conversely, any serious shortfall in defining these boundary conditions is almost certain to make a decision ineffectual, no matter how brilliant it may seem.

“What is the minimum needed to resolve this problem?” is the form in which the boundary conditions are usually probed. “Can our needs be satisfied,” Alfred P. Sloan presumably asked himself when he took command of General Motors in 1922, “by removing the autonomy of the division heads?” His answer was clearly in the negative. The boundary conditions of his problem demanded strength and responsibility in the chief operating positions. This was needed as much as control at the center and unity. The boundary conditions demanded a solution to a problem of structure, rather than an accommodation among personalities. And this, in turn, made his solution last.

ACTION POINT: Take a decision you are facing today. Clearly specify what purpose or need you want to fulfill by making the decision.

“Let’s all sing the redneck national anthem: Settle for what you can get.”

Barbara Kingsolver

“Just the usual formality before the chaos begins. Like playing the National Anthem before a Cubs game.”

Berkeley Breathed

“And now we have the formalities over, we’ll have the National Anthems.”

Brian Moore


“If you were a country,” I said, “what would your national anthem be?”I meant a pre-existing song — “What a Wonderful World” or “Que Sera, Sera” or something to make it a joke, like “Hey Ya!” (“I would like, more than anything else, for my nation to be shaken like a Polaroid picture.”)”

David Levithan

“In the newspapers I read a biography about an American. He left his whole huge fortune to factories and for the positive sciences, his skeleton to the students at the academy there, and his skin to make a drum so as to have the American national anthem drummed on it day and night.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Hardly worth the effort, really,” he muttered. “It’s a homunculus lock. Only opens when a predefined set of factors is present. Could be it only opens when a redheaded lass sings the national anthem of Atlantis at three o’clock on a Thursday. Or when the light of the setting sun is reflected from a cracked mirror onto a goat’s eye. Or when Mr. Grey hawks a bogey onto a purple newt. I’ve seen some good homunculus factors in my time, yar.”

G. Norman Lippert

“I like traditions, and the national anthem is important.”

Kate Mara

“The national anthem of Hell is ‘I did it my way.”

Peter Kreeft

“So . . . middle school? Awkward.Having a hobby that’s different from everyone else’s? Awkward. Singing the national anthem on weekends instead of going to sleepovers? More awkward. Braces? Awkward. Gain a lot of weight before you hit the growth spurt? Awkward. Frizzy hair, don’t embrace the curls yet? Awkward. Try to straighten it? Awkward!So many phases!”

Taylor Swift

“It is considered in the Sto Plains that only scoundrels know the second verse of their national anthem, since anyone spending time memorizing that would be up to no good purpose.”

Terry Pratchett

“You take a bunch of people who don’t seem any different from you and me, but when you add them all together you get this sort of huge raving maniac with national borders and an anthem.”

Terry Pratchett

“Belize: The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it.”

Tony Kushner

“The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody could reach it. That was deliberate.”

Tony Kushner

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