Apelles knew the power of perfectionism, as well as its dangers.
He was a painter. Reputed to be the greatest of his day. Alexander the Great commissioned him to paint a portrait of himself.
Apelles also painted Alexander’s general Antigonus the One-eyed. (In the portrait, he turned Antigonus’ head so you couldn’t see his eye scar).
Apelles once sailed to the island of Rhodes. He was there to visit a rival he admired, Protogenes.
Apelles arrived at Protogenes’ home. But the master was away. An old lady kept his studio in order for him. She asked, could she take a message?
Apelles said “Tell him it was this person.” He walked up to a large blank panel, ready for painting. He picked up a fine brush. He painted an extremely fine line all the way across, and walked out.
Protogenes returned, heard the message, inspected the line. “Apelles is here!” he exclaimed. He picked up another brush, and a different paint color, and painted a line perfectly covering Apelles’ extremely fine line. No more, no less.
Apelles again returned when Protogenes was out. He saw Protogenes’ work. He chuckled, took up a brush, and painted over it an even finer line of another color, dividing Protogenes’ line perfectly down the middle.
When Protogenes returned, he saw again. He threw up his hands and admitted defeat. He left the panel as it was, as a monument of their contest.
Apelles only achieved his status by extreme perfectionism. We should emulate this.
However, he knew it could go too far.
He once said, “In all respects my achievements and those of Protogenes are on a level, or perhaps Protogenes’ are superior. But there is one respect in which I stand higher: I know when to take my hand away.”
Apelles knew when to stop, when another stroke would be too much. We should emulate this too.
The challenge, of course, is knowing which situation you are in with a given task.