Nathanael Garrett Novosel, February 15 2023

Better, Not Perfect

There is a great saying for anyone trying to get work done: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." I say it all the time when trying to talk executives back from a perfect three-year plan to focusing more on a clear understanding of what you need to achieve and a plan that shows progress and value toward those outcomes over time vs. a bunch of long-term initiatives that may or may not ever get done.

I looked up the saying before writing this to see what its original use and intent was, and I was surprised that there's a Pareto principle point behind this where getting "good enough"—defined as 80% of perfection—might take 20% of the effort whereas that last 20% improvement would take 80% of the effort. So the original idea was an ROI calculation of effort and benefit, diminishing returns, and efficiency.

This surprised me because I use it for a sub-reason of this larger explanation: trying to be perfect can cause you to suffer from analysis paralysis, to take a comprehensive approach that doesn't show you near-term benefits, and to give up. In other words, if you spend months in additional planning and preparation but then never actually do anything because something comes along and takes you away from it, you are no better off than you were before.

Worse, you might not be able to last long enough in contexts like sports, business, or academics where you might need to get better in a variety of areas or show "good enough" within a certain period of time to remain in the game long enough to continue on. You can't deliver a perfect product if your business doesn't exist because you never made any money spending too long in development. Furthermore, you might not even be able to know what perfection is until you get critical feedback that you can only get through trial and error.

These risks are the ones that I think are most useful for you in a life context. There are two reasons in today's society why it is so important to remember this point as you move forward in life:

Life is all about growth, so it's all about being better in any and every way you can today than yesterday and tomorrow than today. Whether you make your bed better, cook better, clean better, work more effectively, or learn a new skill, you are improving and realizing your potential. Even if you "take a day off" from conscious improvement, you are unconsciously getting better—whether it's earning more money from your job, doing a task one more time so it reinforces your muscle memory, or spending more time with your family to solidify those familial bonds. You can get better in many, many ways and never have to feel like you need to be perfect in any or every single thing to be successful, worthy, or valuable as a human being.

Yes, it's an amazing feat to bowl a 300, to pitch a "perfect game" in baseball, or to write a "perfect" story that receives universal acclaim. But anyone who achieves those things keeps going forward and doing something else, whether it's trying to win another championship or to write the next great screenplay that expresses something new or unique about the human condition. But "perfect" is practically impossible, anyway, because the "perfect" computer in 1984 is different than the "perfect" computer today because capabilities change, needs evolve, and potential is always increasing. Not to mention that "perfect" depends on the criteria you use, and therefore people will vary in their judgment of what is "perfect" since everyone has their own assessment criteria.

So don't worry about perfect; focus on better. You'll be happier, feel more rewarded with the sense of progress, and find it easier to stay on course toward success in your life.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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