November 20

Perfect Is The Enemy Of Good: Stop Chasing Unicorns

Robert Watson Watt, a British physicist, gave the world the cult of the imperfect. It's a philosophy we would all do well to adopt. Watts said, 'Always strive to give the military the third-best because the best is impossible and the second best is always too late.' Watt reiterated Voltaire's earlier pronouncements that perfect is the enemy of good.

Our quest for perfection

You have a deadline to turn in a finished report to your boss in a couple of hours. With a few more pages still left to write, you're stuck on a sentence. You obsess over whether to use the word stakeholder or collaborator. Precious minutes tick by, your stress levels increase, brain fog develops. You're caught like a deer in headlights, unable to proceed.

Or let's say you have a dinner party scheduled to start at 7 p.m. You've been running around getting food ready all day. Of course, you haven't had much time to do the thorough cleaning you envisaged. It's 6.30 p.m. now, and you're staring at messy floors. You're mad, not just at yourself but at everyone and everything else, including the carpet, for being in a color that makes dirt obvious.

Do these examples sound familiar?

Just short of perfect

Every single day of our lives is filled with such situations. We set out gloriously high expectations for ourselves (and others) while mostly underestimating the level of effort needed to get to the perfection we crave. In the process, we lose our sanity because we don't know when to say 'The End' and move on.

Sometimes we're lucky, like in the examples above when external deadlines force us to abandon our quest for perfection, reluctantly.

Unfortunately, in a majority of situations, there are no outside impositions on our time. We need to decide when we can call something done. So, we nurse, dawdle and plod along on our projects, interminably, in the hope of (unattainable) precision.

Here's the good news, though.

There is a way out of these situations. It's called cutting yourself some slack. By doing what is good (enough) instead of what's perfect.

Choosing good (enough)

Settling for good (enough) instead of perfection looks like this:

  • You pick a word to use on your report and get on with it. Most people, other than you, don't care whether you use the word stakeholder or collaborator.
  • You vacuum highly visible spots like the living and kitchen floors and maybe just a couple of the stairs most likely to be seen by your guests. And show off your home proudly.

In other words, we learn to recognize that perfect is the enemy of good.

Agreed, these are not perfect solutions. But they are good (enough). And they will do just fine. Perfectly fine.

Let's unpack this a little further.

Why 'perfect is the enemy of good'?

There are two primary ways how the quest for perfection can be counterproductive, and in fact, quite detrimental to your well-being.

1. The mountain looks too daunting to climb, so you'd rather be a sofa-spud

Here's how this works. Let's say you sign up for a marathon. Your training schedule dictates longer midweek runs. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way in the form of a sick child, a work emergency, or bad weather.

On such days, you have a choice. Do you get out and run a good enough five miles instead of the scheduled ten miles, or do you sit on the couch using life as an excuse?

Phrased this way, the choice seems obvious, doesn't it? But I bet you, in the quest for perfection, the choice most of us make more often than not, is to remain sofa-spuds (21st-century couch potatoes).

Here are a few more examples:

  • We give up on our planned diet because we had a few bad days in a row. To continue the diet further seems pointless.
  • We quit halfway through a knitting project because it doesn't meet the grand expectations we set for ourselves at the beginning.

We start out envisioning a perfectly executed project. When there is even a hint of deviation from this perfect model, we get disillusioned and quit.

Quitting – pattern recognition

Sadly, the quitting doesn't bode well for our future efforts because we are even more intimidated to try the next time.

Our brains are great at remembering all the cringe-worthy moments we'd rather forget. We're wired that way to survive as a species - by recalling our mistakes, so we don't repeat them.

Unfortunately, the brain cannot tell the difference between

a) quitting a sandcastle project on the beach at the sight of a killer whale and

b) quitting a half-knit sweater because you don't believe it's magazine-cover-worthy.

All your brain remembers is to quit when execution doesn't align with the plan. It's easy for your mind to latch on to this non-action behavior every time perfection is under threat.

2. You've been putting finishing touches on....forever

The second reason why perfect is the enemy of good has to do with unrealistic expectations.

In the quest for perfection, many otherwise good enough ventures don't get to see the light of the day.

  • Your finished manuscript sits on your desktop because you want to add some more refinements to it. It's been three years now.
  • The thank-you gift you meant to mail out to your friend for her child's first birthday sits half-wrapped in a corner because you were looking for the perfect bow. Now that child is about to start elementary school.
  • The clothes that had to be returned to the store because they don't fit right are still in your room, six months later, because you were waiting to optimize your errand to the store.

These are innocent-sounding examples. Unfortunately, we hold on to potentially life-altering ideas and dreams for these same reasons.

We believe our ideas and dreams are not road-worthy yet and need further refinement. We have too many limiting beliefs that hold us back. Unfortunately, for some, that fine-tuning process lasts an entire lifetime, and the ideas die with the person.

Creative stalemate

The downside to spending too long trying to perfect solutions is that we clutter our creative spaces with stale ideas. We limit the available space for other, more imaginative thoughts to flow through.

Creative ideas are like fresh fruit in a produce warehouse. To retain taste and freshness, they need to move quickly through the supply chain into consumers' hands. The longer you leave it sitting in the warehouse, the higher the chances are of spoiled, wasted produce.

Notwithstanding the heartburn unfinished projects cause you, there is a much more obvious reason why attaining perfection shouldn't be a goal.

The Perfection Unicorn

Simply put, perfection is a utopia. An illusion. It does not exist. The pursuit of perfection is like chasing a mystical creature that changes its shape and nature every time you believe you're close to reaching it.

Imagine a world where each product only had a version 1.0 because it was created perfectly? A place where there are no testing or quality control departments anywhere – because the work would have been perfect the first time it was developed.  

Or, picture the universe without the need for customer service representatives– because every product works the way it's supposed to, and the consumer has precise instructions on how to use the product.

Far-fetched, don't you think?

And yet, why do we expect that level of excellence the first time around? Why are we so afraid to put our wares out on display?

We hold on to ideas because we are yet to convince ourselves that perfect is the enemy of good. It puts us in the comfort zone. Also, traditionally, humans lived in a world where there were fewer creators and many more consumers. You could afford to take your time while consumers waited patiently.

Not anymore, though. We live in vastly different times. Unprecedented opportunities (at all levels) have now shattered the entry barriers to becoming a creator. The world is your oyster now.

The world is a - changing

Nowhere is this difference in approach more apparent than between traditional businesses and the startup culture.

Product releases in traditional industries took time. It was months, even years before something went from being an idea to a marketable product. Contrast that to the super short timeframes in the startup world.

The hacker culture (startup culture) is based around an entirely contradictory set of operating principles compared to traditional industries. Facebook plastered the words 'Done is better than perfect' on their walls to encourage employees to think differently.

The rules for survival have changed. If a company doesn't keep putting content or product out on time, they risk losing market share in a global world with cut-throat competition.

Similarly, we live in an era where constant upskilling and learning are essential to staying relevant. We're repeatedly asked to bet on ourselves to rise to such challenges.

If you are a software programmer applying for a job, you need to be confident about listing the new programming skills you learned, on your resume. If you feel you need to know every little nuance of the language before you highlight it on your resume, then you'll just be waiting forever. Your quest for perfection is probably going to outlast the programming language.

The sooner you understand that perfect is the enemy of good, the more progress you'll make.

That said, I can sense the perfection police on my heels here already. So, let me make one thing abundantly clear.

Mediocrity isn't invited to this party

The whole premise of this article is about comparing good(enough) to perfection. There is no place for mediocrity in this discussion. There's, obviously, a world of difference between being mediocre and good.

Shipping beats perfection does not imply putting things out in the marketplace before they are good enough. Consumers are not and should not be expected to be product testers. Thankfully, market economics usually takes care of this issue by weeding mediocre products out of contention.

Also, what's good enough is unique to each industry and is driven by what's at stake.

Launching a spaceship requires a lot more 'enough' in the good-enough framework than launching a toy. A gaming app can get away with less perfection than a pill to treat heart disease. The former could merely annoy gamers; the latter could kill.

Yes, something is better than nothing. But nothing is better than nonsense. A healthy dose of common sense is always a good idea.

Hopefully, that's enough to pacify the perfection police and convince you that perfect is the enemy of good. Let's move on to see how to apply the good (enough) rule in our daily lives.

Get Started. Already.

A majority of us aren't launching spaceships, though it may feel like just that sometimes. We simply have our someday goals and projects that we'd like to get started on. Most of us are typically afraid of the potential for criticism and failure, and in the process, self-sabotage ourselves.

But, remember this: you don't make the shots you don't take. And waiting to perfect the shot is like dribbling your ball a hundred times before attempting the first shot. It is painful, time-consuming, and has no guarantee of success.

So, how do we find the magical threshold for what's good enough?

Pareto shows us the way

A great rule of thumb to use here is the Pareto principle, or the 80-20 rule, as it is commonly known. The rule was proposed by engineer-turned-economist Vilfredo Pareto, who suggested that roughly 80% of consequences usually result from 20% of  causes. Pareto used wealth distribution as an example to demonstrate how 80% of Italy's wealth was concentrated in the hands of 20% of the population.

Since then, the theory has been applied across multiple fields, but, at the core, it explains one fundamental concept. That even distribution is a myth.

For instance,

  • 20% of the shows on cable bring in 80% of the revenue for the networks
  • 80% of the software bugs are caused by 20% of the code
  • 20% of the students in a classroom cause 80% of the headaches for the teacher

Don't get too caught up on the exact numbers here. The point is that a large proportion of output (about 80%) can be attributed to a small percentage of input (about 20%).

I bet Pareto will be quite delighted if we adopt his theory.

The 80-20 way to good (enough)

If your ideas or product are good enough (meets 80% of the requirements), they may be ready for primetime.  

The reality is that it might take you another 80% of the effort you already put in to meet the remaining 20% of the requirements (if that's even possible).

Focusing on the unpolished 20% is a pit many of us fall into, both in our personal growth objectives and corporate situations.

If we change our focus to build to the rule (80%) rather than the exceptions (20%), we'll do much better to get things moving along. That's not to say we'd never handle the exceptions. It's just the initial effort should be directed at getting to good enough (80%).

For instance,

  • If you only have 30 minutes of workout time available instead of the hour you had planned for, be judicious with your time by doing high-intensity interval training for 20 minutes. 
  • If you're almost satisfied with the poem you've written, go ahead and publish it instead of lingering on it. That's the only way you can make room for another, better poem
  • If you're putting off reading for an hour a day because of a tight schedule, focus on at least reading for a short time each day to get into the habit.

Recognize that perfect is the enemy of good.

Clear out your work in progress pile to make room for newer stuff. If you keep doing this consistently, you'll get better as time moves on.

Prolific and perfection don't mix

Truman Capote (author of Breakfast at Tiffany's) once joked about a fellow novelist, Jack Kerouac's apparent disregard for perfecting his writing. Kerouac believed in free-flow writing, ostensibly without editing his work. To this, Capote said, 'That's not writing, that's typing.'

Unless you are someone already well-established in your field, throwing raw, unrefined content out into the world isn't advisable. But, most of us fall into the opposite end of that spectrum. We nurse our little projects and dreams for way longer than needed, or worse, abandon them in the quest for impossible perfection.

Instead, when you think it's good enough, have the confidence to 'Ship it.' (whatever that 'it' means for you). Out of your mind. Already.

Like Facebook, you may need the words' Perfect is the enemy of good', or one of its many variations, plastered in your mind. Or in other high-visibility areas.

Striving for perfection is a great thing; it helps you attain excellence. But waiting till you reach perfection means you'll be waiting forever.

Continuous improvement is better than delayed Perfection – Mark Twain



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