David Foster Wallace on Ambition and Perfectionism

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” — David Foster Wallace

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is an essential look into his thinking. It doesn’t however, offer many thoughts on ambition and perfection. For that we can turn to this beautiful PBS clip.

On perfectionism:

You know, the whole thing about perfectionism — The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in … It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.

On learning through teaching:

I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student and I thought I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student. And a lot of it is that when you see students work where the point, whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever, and to try and articulate to the student how empty and frustrating it is for a reader to invest their time and attention in something and to feel that the agenda is basically to show you that the writer is clever. All the kind of stuff, right, when I’m doing my little onanistic, clever stuff in grad school, that when my professors would talk to me about it, I would go, “Well, they don’t understand. I’m a genius, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now that I’m the teacher, I’m starting to learn—it’s like the older you get, the smarter your parents get—now I’m starting to learn that they had some smart stuff to tell me.

Still curious? Compliment with conversations with David Foster Wallace and the DT Max Biography on Wallace: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.