Perfection is the enemy of good.
Perfect is the enemy of done.
Perfection is the enemy of progress.
You’ve heard all the variations of the saying before.
They are all saying the same thing.
Stop trying to be perfect.
Instead you should strive for progress not perfection.
How does progress come about? The only way is through consistency. Through constant repetition and trying. By showing up every. Single. Day. Regardless of how you feel. Regardless of whether anyone is watching you.
Even when the going gets tough. When it’s a struggle. When you’ve tried and failed. When you’ve got up and tried and failed again. Especially when you’ve got up and tried and failed again. And again. And again. Remember that:
The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.
They say “practice makes perfect” but this clichéd phrase like all clichés has long since lost its impact and power for me and probably many others.
But here is the best example of “practice makes perfect” I’ve come across —it’s from Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (a great read for anyone struggling with the creative process).
The following is the excerpt from the book:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Ponder this for a moment. How powerful is this? This served to restore the original power and impact of “practice makes perfect” for me — now every time I hear the saying I imagine that ceramics class.
Quantity leads to quality.
Perfectionism is euphemism
At least for me personally this has really changed my outlook and how I approach things.
In the past I always considered myself somewhat of a “perfectionist” in everything I did. To me if you wanted to do something, “you’d better either do it right or don’t start doing it at all.”
In retrospect, this led to many blind spots in my life. For example I would always be hesitant to try something new, especially if I wasn’t good at it. I guess it was a combination of worrying what others thought of me and my personal lack of self-esteem. I didn’t want people to think I was ignorant or bad at something.
I’d also always be hesitant to contribute to discussions, whether in real life or on an internet forum (I’m a longtime lurker on Reddit) unless I knew just about all the facts, which naturally was rarely the case. I don’t know why but I mistakenly always felt that if I contributed it had to be something brilliant, profound or witty.
This “perfectionist” attitude led to a stagnation of new skills.
The most relevant example is writing and blogging. Prior to this I would never have considered writing let alone, God forbid, publishing it on a blog for all to see and judge my work. Especially as I never thought myself particularly proficient at writing, or to borrow a term from William Hung… 😆
But I guess deep down I was just afraid. Afraid that my writing would suck. Afraid that people would judge my work. Afraid that I would get negative comments. Afraid that nobody would even read my work.
I guess that’s what perfectionism really boils down to isn’t it? An excuse for not starting because you are too afraid to start.
It’s an excuse for fear. A euphemism for fear. It’s a what we tell ourselves to trick us into thinking we are not actually too scared. “I’m a perfectionist” sounds much better, more elegant, classier, cooler than admitting “I’m too scared.”
So let’s just call it what it is, fear.
Recognition. This the first step to overcoming the fear.
Just do it
The next step is to act. Execute. Just do it. Just start. Stop theorizing and realize you will suck when you just start something.
Your first fifty articles will probably suck.
Your first ten books will probably suck.
Your first twenty videos you upload to YouTube will probably suck.
Your first startup will probably suck.
Your first song or acting gig will probably also suck.
But get this. It’s okay to suck. Heck it’s normal to suck whenever you start something new.
To put it another way, when you are new you have permission to suck — a licence to suck, if you will. And this, for me, is a liberating realization.
It’s a liberating feeling to not have to be perfect — eliminating the burden of needing to create perfect work. All of a sudden it’s not so daunting anymore.
It doesn’t matter if your work sucks at first or nobody even sees it. More than anything, in the beginning you’re doing it for yourself. So all that matters is you show up and just do it.
Adopt the mindset that the quicker you can get that first ten, fifty, one hundred “sucky pieces of work” out of your system the better.
Keep doing everyday and I promise you will suck less. You will get better with practice and time…and maybe one day you might actually attain perfection or mastery in your craft.
Like most things in life all this is a delicate balance.
There is much to be said about quality and the field of QA.
The counter argument to “perfection is the enemy” is if you adopt a lax attitude to your work, your work won’t stand out or gain traction and worse still you may acquire a reputation for below par work. The danger lies in going the opposite extreme — the opposite of perfectionism — having a lackadaisical “yolo-like” attitude.
Understand that if you want to attain mastery in any field, whether in the arts, the sciences or others, you need to adopt the perfectionist mindset but temper it with practicality — that is the practical constraints of your current skill level.
As Bruce Lee once said:
Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own.
So you still need to be meticulous and not careless. You need to have attention to detail — double-checking your work.
By failing to do these things you really are shooting yourself in the foot. You are failing by default. Which is like the opposite of “quick-wins,” more like “quick-losses.”
Perfectionism of late has accumulated a lot of negative connotations and baggage. Popular opinion has moved in favor of “quantity over quality” arguments.
Just remember to keep a balanced view and approach whilst acknowledging that it takes time to be obtain mastery — that famous 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success. I might do a book review on that in the future.