Perfect Isn't the Enemy of Done: Where the Desire for Perfection Really Fits in a Thriving Workplace

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This was originally written for my newsletter, Damn the Best Practices. Each week, I share one idea about thinking for yourself at work. The newsletter is for people bothered by all the awful commodity crap out there. You'll find no "hacks" or "secrets," only stories for people who love quality and craft -- like you! đź’› Join free right here.

This week, I'm torn about something we all face. Maybe we can work through it together. I suspect that since you're bothered by commodity work and hellbent on making quality stuff, you struggle with this too.

Here's the deal: When someone says, "Perfect is the enemy of good," or, "Perfect is the enemy of done," this is me:

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Burn .... BURN! Thou bringest SHAME upon the House of Creativity! I cast ye out, evil spirits! Be gone, and take thou laziness and thou shoddy craftsmanship with thee, foul beasts! 

(I am nothing if not passionate, thank you very much.)

See, too many people in the business world hide behind pithy phrases like "Perfect is the enemy of good" to justify shipping stuff that's so unbelievably NOT good. And when I see that happen, well, yanno ... fire and brimstone and while we're at it what even IS brimstone?

But last week, one reader helped me realize this stuff's way more nuanced and difficult to parse. Our brief email exchange then unearthed a new thread I wanted to yank on today. 

Last week, in an edition of my newsletter titled "Now what?", I wrote about resetting to first principles to continue this journey we're all on together. A huge part of my writing, and the subject of several email entries including last week's, revolves around this idea that we're battling commodity crap and fighting for better, more exceptional work in our careers, companies, and industries. Naturally, when someone scoffs at the idea of perfect and suggests that "good" or "done" is a superior end goal, I tend to clap back. 

But then Sherene Strahan emailed me from Perth, Australia. Sherene's is a longtime reader and supporter and someone I'm grateful to have gotten to know through this newsletter. (Thanks and hi, Sherene! ) Here's what she wrote me that made me lower my arms and cease all fire and brimstone (whatever that is)...

I'm still developing my own voice in this area [content marketing and business more broadly - Sherene's from journalism and communications] and where you talk in this email about the dross on the internet right now, I felt like you were looking straight at me!!! I'm not where I want to be writing wise, but the only way I can get there is to be bad first. So here's my question: How can we who believe what you believe still push ourselves to get better when we know that, right now, we're probably contributing to more of that sucky stuff?

I mean...

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How much do you love that question?!

How can we aspire to be exceptional but still embrace the only path towards it? Not to mix children's shows too much here, but to quote Jake from Adventure Time: 

"Suckin' at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something!"

(Adventure Time isn't REALLY a children's show, but I digress...) 

Alright, so: We want to do great work, and the only way to go from where we begin to “great” is to be bad for awhile. Then how are we any different from all that sucky stuff out there? Are we part of the problem?

Well, let's revisit that pithy phrase: "Perfect is the enemy of good (or done)." Why am I constantly calling down fire and brimstone, also known as sulfur? It's because this phrase lacks nuance. It implies that we can't aspire to be perfect AND ALSO ship our work. So, as the saying implies, to motivate ourselves to take action in our careers, we must first remove the desire for perfection.

Pffft. PFFFT!

Then again ... we DO need to ship our work, even if it's bad. We can’t let a desire to be great cripple us to the point of paralysis.

So how can we aspire to perfection (even if it's never something we reach) while still moving forward without delay (even if we aren't creating amazing work yet)? Well, I think the key is to place perfection where it belongs: away in the distance. Then, we can busy ourselves with marching towards it. And the only way to march towards it? Yep. Gotta suck. That’s the first step to being sorta good. And THAT is the first step to being legitimately good. And THAT is the first towards … you get it.

Thus, the real focus shoudn’t be on perfection or action. That’s a false choice. Instead, our focus should be squarely on the driving force behind any thriving career or team: constant improvement.

So, Sherene, the answer is slowly codifying in my mind. Why are you different? Because you took time out of your day to write that email. Why are you any different? Because you were willing to be vulnerable with me, basically a stranger. Why are you different? Because you clearly care. You care about constantly improving. That's what separates you ... and me ... and YOU (yes, you, reading this right now). That's what separates all of us. We may not be doing great work just yet, but we care about getting there. 

Perfection drives us forward. We'll never reach it, but we care about doing the best possible work we can. On the other hand, others who willingly create so-so stuff because “Eh, it works” don't care much at all. Whereas you and I want to maximize the upside, they’re focused on mitigating the downside. They want to put in the least possible effort for the most possible gain.

So, what's the difference between us and them? Intent.

What WE intend to happen is far different than what THEY intend, especially over the long arc of time. As for those receiving our work? I think there are clues they can spot that help them think, “Okay, this project may not be great yet, but it’s trying to be and I appreciate that.”

Take my work in podcasting and public speaking. When someone tries to start their episodes with a cold open instead of droning housekeeping or a glut of calls-to-action ... or when a speaker tries to tell a meaningful story instead of push their "simple secrets for success" … it shows. Both people may execute those things poorly right now, but the signs are there. Like a cook with delicious produce and a prime cut of meat, they started with high quality raw ingredients. They just haven't figured out how to turn that into a great meal yet. But make no mistake: This next dish is gonna be so much tastier than their last.

Outside the working world, as a child, I experienced this in basketball all the time. I was a scrawny, slower player. When you looked at the stats at the end of a game, I wasn’t likely to stand out. I looked so-so at best. But if you watched me play, you could tell I hustled. You could see my jumpshot’s form. You could watch a few moments here and there on defense where I ran to the right places and did the right things. Those all eventually added up to a starting spot on the varsity team in high school. Sure, early on, a fan or two may have thought, “Meh, he’s not so great.” I had to be okay with that, just as you have to be okay with a few others NOT noticing the signs that you have potential in your work. But more often than not, people do notice. Our work offers clues. The narrative that everyone is judging us harshly is in our heads. It’s up to us to ensure that we bring with that terrible thought a better one: I don’t care if they judge me now, because my intent isn’t to be good now. My intent is to be great tomorrow. My focus is constant improvement.

Perfect isn't the enemy of good, nor is it the barrier to done. I just think we're framing the idea all wrong. Aspire to perfection over time, but make sure you're taking one step forward today.

Make the goal constant improvement. Bring the right intent to your work.

"Perfect is the enemy of good" ...is the enemy of great. Keep trying to be great.

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If you enjoyed this entry, you’ll love Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. BTW is my first book, released this past October. Remember: Finding “best practices” isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for YOU is. We’ve never explored how to do that, which is why I wrote the book. It’s available in print, ebook, and audiobook versions now >>

Posted on October 29, 2018 .