What Geneva Taught Me about Striving for Perfection
I went to Geneva in search of the perfect city – and I found it.
For years I’ve been scoping out potential European cities to live in, only to find something wrong: too chaotic, expensive, or industrial; horrible weather (I’m looking at you, London); not enough job opportunity; the list goes on. Tucked away in Switzerland’s mountainside is a city with stunning architecture, a bustling European culture, and bountiful, high-paying salaries. The people are friendly and good-looking, the government is refreshingly stable, and swans leisurely swim across the crystal clear lake that the city is built around.
I’m not kidding. This exists.
I spent two days walking around Geneva without much purpose other than getting a feel of the city. I visited all the main spots that I fantasized myself frequenting if I were to live there: the Jardin Anglais park near the famous Jet D’eau fountain, the trendy, boho chic Eaux-Vives neighborhood, the ancient, French-styled Vieille Ville (Old Town). It all seemed so idyllic…
And, for some reason, that didn’t sit well with me.
Perhaps it’s part of being Italian and accustomed to chaos and disorder (let’s face it, we secretly love it), but Geneva struck me as almost too perfect. I wasn’t alone in this thought; even the locals, when prompted, admitted that the city was definitely as pristine as I perceived it to be.
By this point, you’re probably wondering why on earth I’d have a problem with that. To that, I say: perfection creates a standard that we can collectively to look up to, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t give us the answers as to what will actually make us feel happy or fulfilled. Allow me to explain why.
Perfection exists, but it’s superficial
Geneva seemingly had all the traits one would expect from the perfect city: beauty, order, prosperity, and culture. As I leisurely strolled through its immaculate streets, I kept wondering to myself why I wasn’t satisfied despite thinking it was such a perfect place.
This really made me question why I felt perfection was so necessary in the first place. Society has created perfection as a benchmark for what the epitome of something should be, so flawless and extremely difficult to attain that the vast majority of us just cannot measure up to it. Perfection is a word that floats around quite promiscuously, carrying with it an air of arrogance, insatiable demands, and uncountable sacrifices. Perhaps due to all the promises encapsulated in this one word, we desperately long for it even when we claim we don’t.
The problem with defining perfection is that it’s all based on vacuous, superficial criteria. I was particularly stricken by one dictionary definition:
Conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type.
The key word is “conform” – to comply with rules, standards, or laws. While I can’t speak to how or why our collective conscious can agree to a standard of perfection, I will admit I’ve definitely fallen for the allure of conforming to what’s considered ideal. Wanting perfection makes sense, until I stop and really think about what I’m personally trying to attain with it. Is it superiority? Satisfaction? Happiness? What void will “perfect” fill?
It was then that I realized what was missing as I walked through Geneva.
Perfection negates the flaws that challenge us
While Geneva provided me with a cloaking sense of comfort and safety, I also felt starved for the disorder that characterizes so many of the cities that I love. Take Rome, for example, a city that is completely chaotic. Everything runs on its own schedule, locals loudly complain about the economy to anyone who dares to listen (who can blame them), and nepotism shamelessly precedes law. While the chaos sometimes drives me crazy, it is a reminder that even one of the most beautiful cities in the world is not exempt from its neuroses. More so, that I can fall in love with it and learn from it despite its neuroses. In a place that by its very nature defies compliance yet still manages to inspire awe and reverence from anyone who sets eyes on it, perfection becomes obsolete. Rome couldn’t be Rome without its imperfections. This is what makes it so authentic and eternal in both its beauty and complaints.
As much as I think I’d like to live in the perfect city, when it comes down to it I’d feel stifled. By nature, I crave change – and being somewhere that I don’t believe needs much of it wouldn’t challenge me. I’ve benefited incredibly from my love-hate relationship with New York City, which to me is as imperfect of a city as they get: perpetually dirty, inhabited by people that are always rushing to get somewhere, and overflowing with superficialities that, if you cave into, will suck you dry of all your values. Against all odds, New York has pushed me to be better precisely due to its imperfections. It’s taught me to be patient by consistently throwing impatience my way. It’s pushed me to seek deeper connections with people because everyone is so exhaustingly superficial. It’s encouraged an open-mindedness to trying anything, any of the vast experiences the city offers, because I know I may not do it elsewhere. New York had so much potential to corrupt me, yet I became a stronger person for it. I don’t think I would have felt this challenged living in a city as lovely and peaceful as Geneva.
Sometimes in our strive for perfection, we neglect to appreciate that intangible spark that accompanies everything that perfection isn’t: chaotic, disorderly, messy, in progress. We have a tendency to give more value to what’s already considered perfect, but in my opinion, it takes much more courage to choose to appreciate – and even love – something despite its flaws. It means we have to actively unsubscribe to societal expectations of what’s “ideal” and challenge ourselves to think about what really matters to us personally, even if it goes against the current. A fascinating shift happens once we learn to love flaws – they tend to stop being perceived as such.
We need perfection to remember what we value
The biggest irony of perfection is that we often take it for granted when it’s right in front of us. To me, Geneva was the perfect city that I always sought after; I absolutely loved it. Yet, when encountered with this so-called perfection, I wasn’t ready. I’m too unfinished – as we all are. I automatically sought the tension that keeps me striving for self-improvement.
This tells me a lot about the human condition. We are never satisfied, and we always want more. Even if presented with the perfect specimen, we will find something wrong with it, that it’s “too right.” People naturally seek perfection, but what we need is contention. The very fact that we search for flaws in the presence of perfection is proof of our essential need to feel challenged.
While perfection doesn’t tell us much about what will make us happy, it does serve a very important purpose. It creates an epitome, an anchor of societal values that we can measure against and choose not to conform to. It also helps us realize what is possible. Geneva is proof that although it is highly uncommon, a stable, orderly, and beautiful city can exist. It’s out there somewhere. That in itself gives me the choice to pick chaos.
There comes a point where we need to stop concerning ourselves with what the “perfect” benchmark that we have set as a society is and start evaluating what matters to us personally. Living in the perfect city will not help me if what improves me is disruption and chaos. While perfect can be real, it is not necessarily right. It doesn’t account for how messy life is, how different each one of us is, our desires and wishes and sometimes not-so-crazy dreams. It is a cookie-cutter construct, and if you prefer your cookies doughy and chunky rather than symmetrical and baked to the ideal golden glow… Well, then perfect just won’t work for you.