Perfect is the Enemy of Good

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

– Kongzi

I often remind my clients, when they’re trying something new, to expect resistance, mistakes, and imperfections. I ask them to “Do it even if you have to do it badly.”

In the same way that trying to run before you can walk will likely end in failure, if we expect perfection when completing important tasks or aspirations, we may never finish anything. In fact, the burden of being perfect right off the bat can be so crushing that even starting something can become difficult. 

When we are struggling under the burden of perfectionism, there is usually another trait at play as well: Pride.

In my own life, pride has often been an asset. By setting high standards for myself, and therefore pushing myself harder than the other people around me, I’ve learned more and learned faster. By putting pressure on myself, I’ve been motivated to work hard. However, several times I’ve had to find out the hard way that pride is a double-edged sword.

The pitfalls of pride are often described in terms of a prideful person’s impact on others. Prideful people can seem arrogant, aggressive, and judgemental. However, while these downsides may be real, not all people (including me) are offended by the pride of others, and those that are may simply be reflexively defensive when faced with a prideful person’s standards for themselves. This dynamic often played out on the job sites I worked on as a young man. The hardest-working guy makes everyone else look lazy. The other workers might think he is arrogant when, in truth, he just has a work ethic focused on productivity and doing his best.

With that said, there is an easier case to be made that pride can hurt its wielder. 

In my martial arts experience, sometimes a guy who has never fought enters the gym expecting to dominate people who have been training for years. After they are defeated, most never return and therefore never become more proficient than they were on that fateful day they were beaten up by a 110lb girl.

It’s a problem if one’s expectations are to do something perfectly the first time they try it. And, is having such unrealistic expectations not prideful, in a negative sense? To have expectations in this way is to want to skip the humble work of improving before attaining mastery.

In a nutshell: High standards can help us do better… unless they become an excuse to do nothing at all.

Perfect is the enemy of good.