Jean’s Pick of the Week: How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question might just be the perfect book. Well… okay, maybe not perfect. Having just absorbed this book’s lessons on ethics and morality, it would be incorrect for me to oversell you. Perfection is surprisingly hard to achieve! So let me dial it back a notch and say, How to Be Perfect may not actually be perfect, but it’s at least very, very good. I can sense, though, that you’re the skeptical sort and, despite that ringing endorsement, need further convincing. Allow me to make my case.

Author Michael Schur

This book is fun to read and also really funny. You may or may not be familiar with the name Michael Schur, but if you own a television, I’m positive you’re familiar with some of his work. He is a writer and producer who has worked on some of the most highly-lauded comedies of the last fifteen years: The Office, Master of None, Hacks, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. If there is a common denominator on all of the shows that Schur has written for or created, it is this: his humor is infused with heart. Sure, the characters who populate his shows highlight all of the ways people can be ridiculous, idiotic, petty, selfish, and even terrible, but it’s never done with a meanness of spirit. We laugh at his characters, but we love his shows because he makes us care about them too. Within the humor, there is an earnestness that comes through in Schur’s writing, and the same holds true for this book. It may likely be that you’ve never thought deeply about morality and ethics beyond the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments, but while laughing along with Michael Schur’s wit, you will also find yourself caring about the ideas within this book much in the same way you find yourself invested in his shows. 

This book is educational. I know what you’re thinking: “educational” is in direct opposition to “fun to read,” and never the twain shall meet. But I promise you, it’s true. The philosophical questions raised within this book are grounded in what is generally regarded as the three main theories of Western moral philosophy: virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism. Consider this book a type of Cliff’s Notes for the theories behind heavy hitters such as Aristotle, Jeremy Bentham, and Immanuel Kant. Schur manages to distill complex philosophical precepts and ethical quandaries into stories or situations that anyone can relate to and, importantly, understand. What if you are an actor’s biggest fan, but then he makes a horrible racist/sexist/homophobic (insert adjective) comment that you find reprehensible? Do you have an ethical and moral obligation to boycott all of his future works and strike his past works from your memory? Michael Schur uses tenets of philosophy to answer that question and more. Or, at least, to give you a way of thinking about the dilemma that gives you moral agency as an individual and also within the context of the larger world. 

You might be wondering, what qualifies Michael Schur to write with any sort of authority about ethics or morality? His philosophical quest was born out of a show he created called The Good Place which centers around a “bad” woman who, through a clerical error, is admitted into a “good” place, an idyllic afterlife. The central concept raises the question of what makes someone good or bad. Is it our actions alone or are there inherent virtues that people possess? If so, can anyone obtain these virtues? What about when good people do bad things? Or vice versa?  When it comes to philosophy, it’s easy to be led down a never-ending rabbit hole. I, for one, am grateful that it was Michael Schur who did the deep dive and consulted with experts in the field to arm himself with knowledge. I feel it’s important to note that Michael Schur attended Harvard, and the professors he consulted with for the show and for this book have equally impressive credentials, so the brain power that went into this book’s creation isn’t lacking. How to Be Perfect is a fun way to learn about philosophy without actually having to read all of the dense source material. Like I said: win-win.

This book will make you a better person and the world a better place (potentially). This one is a little harder to prove, hence my disclaimer, and you have to buy into a few things in order for them to be true: If you believe that reading can inspire empathy; if you believe that our intentions matter almost, if not as much, as the end result; if you believe people can and should strive to improve themselves and the world around them – then this book will help you get there.

The very act of engaging with these ideas and asking these questions means we’ve already taken a crucial step: we’ve simply decided to care about whether what we do is good or bad. Which means: we’ve decided to try to be better.

Michael Schur in How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

In other words, the very act of reading this book means you’ve taken the first step toward becoming a better person! It might be a bit of a circular argument, but you’ll soon learn that circular logic is the hallmark of philosophy. The point is, you have to start your journey to betterment somewhere, and it might as well be a fun ride. 

Despite the book’s title, How to Be Perfect is actually about all of the ways we are not perfect. Failing doesn’t make us bad people though, it just makes us human, and the biggest gift that Michael Schur imparts in this book is the grace to allow ourselves to fail. The key is in the trying. No one said it better than Samuel Beckett:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

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