To a Perfectly Imperfect 2014 – Why aiming for perfect is a terrible idea

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Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend” Ann Lamott

Back in my school days, I used to call myself “B+ Guy”. That’s because I believed that doing very well was important (FYI, my college GPA was 3.35 – a dead-on B+) – but that the amount of additional time and effort it took to move a B+ to an A was not a worthwhile investment. Better to understand the topic, dig into it and do very well, and then spend whatever time was left over on other things – other classes that needed the attention, other interests, or whatever.

Well, I’m pretty sure I was on to something, because I still basically believe it now. And in today’s new normal, this concept has never been more timely. Now, to be clear, this isn’t an acceptance of shoddy, half-thought-out work full of errors and laziness. And, yes, you’ve got to put in the requisite heaps of work and effort. But when it comes to new ideas, new work, innovation and launching things, a B+ is darn good. In fact, “good enough” is often a good enough place to start – or, as Facebook puts it (and plasters it all over there offices and press), “done is better than perfect”. It’s better to get off and running with something good… and begin learning and improving it, live.

Which is why I’m starting the year with a diatribe against perfection. It’s time to toss the idea of striving for perfection onto the scrap-heap, and move into a more nimble, iterative approach to building things. The problem is that the idea of being a “perfectionist” has a positive connotation to it – overachievers who are obsessed with quality and demanding of positive results. And organizations LOVE perfectionists. They work incredibly long and hard, they demand great results, they reduce errors and failures, and they drive others to do the same. What’s not to like, right? However, there’s a helluva difference between a healthy pursuit of excellence and a neurotic perfectionism. And I’m here to tell you that perfectionism is a negative, and actually gets in the way of productivity and happiness.

The benefits of killing your perfectionism are manifold:

You will do more:  As David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” Waiting for things to be perfect is a perfect recipe to stop moving forward, stop creating, stop doing things. Plus, no amount of perfectionism upfront can possibly prepare you for all the potential complexities and curves thrown at you in the real world – so better to get out there and address them live, as prepared as you can be. You’ll get much more benefit from launching than waiting – as General Patton said “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

You won’t miss opportunities or lose momentum: In the words of the software entrepreneur Roni Einav “I tell people that if they are looking for the perfect idea, for the perfect gap in technology, they will never get there.” In fact, even if you finally achieve what you consider “perfection”, it might be so late that you’ve lost your momentum and your competitive advantage. A perfect example is AT&T and cellular technology. Even though Bell Labs invented and received patents for cellular telephone technology as early as 1946, its demand for “perfection” in quality before making it commercially available led them to cede the industry to other players for years.

You will be willing to make mistakes (thus will learn and succeed more quickly): Perfectionism may protect you from making some mistakes – but those mistakes can also lead you to learnings that cause even greater breakthroughs. It’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to right or perfect. And let’s remember, there are no “right” answers, anyway – especially in areas that demand creativity and innovation.

You’ll know when to let go: Since you’ll know that there is no such thing as perfect, you’ll understand that there will be a point where the work is good – and that more time controlling and perfecting it won’t make it better. You’ll know that no amount of pre-work can predict all possible real-world outcomes – so you’ll do the work that you can do, and be prepared to iterate and improvise afterwards. As the wife of jazz musician Carl Stormer said, “control is for beginners”.

You will recognize that the good and the great are NOT enemies: I’ve worked before with people who turn their nose up at “good” work, saying they demand greatness. But this is silly. Not only are the “good” and the “great” not enemies, but that they are good friends. The difference? “Good” just arrives on the scene earlier – and warms up the place for the “great”. It’s much easier to turn good into great in real life, than try to create great in a lab setting.

You will learn to trust and respect yourself and your partners: Like a jazz musician, you will rehearse what can be rehearsed – but know that you’re creating something new, which by definition has some spontaneity and improvisation to it. So you’ll need to respect the fact that you, and your teammates, all know what you’re doing – and trust each other as you go.

One interesting note: as Greg McKeown points out in his blog post “Today, just be average,” the word “perfect” has a Latin root, whose literal translation would be “made well”, “done thoroughly,” or “complete.” But today, we always use it to signify flawlessness. Let’s all make a new year’s resolution to take perfection back to it’s Latin roots – and eradicate modern perfectionism for the good of all.

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