The Optimized Doctor

To a perfect day


Motionless, every Olympic skater starts off perfectly. Once the music starts, it’s up to them whether they will continue on perfectly or not. In this way, you’re just like an Olympic skater. Each day, a skating program. The music starts the moment your foot touches the floor in the morning. It’s up to you if the rest of the day will continue on flawlessly or not. To this point, I’ve yet to have a perfect day.

If I’m honest, my “perfect day” streak typically ends once I’ve made coffee. By then, I’ll have spilled a few grains of grounds or clinked mugs together when taking one from the cupboard. (D’oh!) Hardly ever can I make it to backing out of the driveway, let alone through a patient encounter. I’ve had a few procedures that when complete I’ve thought, “well, that looks great.” I can remember encounters that went brilliantly despite a high technical difficulty. I’ve also tagged a 7-iron shot 160 downwind yards to within inches of the cup. But I’ve hardly ever done anything in my life perfectly.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

What does it mean to be perfect? Well, there have been 23 perfect baseball games. In 1972, the Miami Dolphins had the only perfect NFL season, 14-0 (although my 2007 Patriots went 18-0 before losing to the – ugh – Giants). Every year, several hundred students score a perfect 1600 on the SAT. In an underground vault somewhere in France is a perfect sphere, a perfectly spherical 1-kg mass of pure silicon. There are at least 51 perfect numbers. And model Bella Hadid’s exactly 1.62-ratioed face is said to be perfectly beautiful. But yet, U.S. skater Nathan Chen’s seemingly flawless 113.97-point short program in Beijing, still imperfect.

Attempting a perfect day or perfect surgery or a perfect pour over coffee is a fun game, but perfectionism has an insidious side. Having perfectionistic concerns significantly increases the risk for burnout, depression, and eating disorders. Some of us feel this way every day: We must do it exactly right, every time. Even an insignificant imperfection or error feels like failure. A 3.90 GPA is a fail. 515 on the MCAT, not nearly good enough. For them, the burden of perfection is crushing. It is hard for some to recognize that even if your performance could not be improved, the outcome can still be flawed. A chip in the ice, a patient showing up late, an interviewer with an agenda, a missed referee call can all flub up an otherwise flawless day. It isn’t necessary to abandon hope, all ye who live in the real world. Although achieving perfection is usually impossible, reward comes from the pursuit of perfection, not from holding it. It is called perfectionistic striving and in contrast to perfectionistic concerns, it is associated with resilience and positive mood. To do so you must combine giving your all with acceptance of whatever the outcome.

Keith Jarrett is one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. He is a true perfectionist, precise in his standards and exacting in expectations. In 1975 in Cologne, Germany, he agreed to play at the behest of a teenage girl who arranged to have him perform at the opera house. Except, there was a miscommunication and only a small, broken rehearsal piano was available. As the story goes, she approached him as he waited to be taken back to his hotel, the concert was canceled and she somehow convinced him to play on the nearly unplayable instrument. The result is the Köln Concert, one of the greatest jazz performances in history. It was perfectly imperfect.

Yes, even the 1-kg sphere has femtogram quantities of other elements mixed in – the universal standard for perfect is itself, imperfect. It doesn’t matter. It’s the pursuit of such that makes life worthwhile. There’s always tomorrow. Have your coffee grinders ready.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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