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Fight perfection

Seeking perfection is a fool’s errand.

Perfection is a fading spark that can only be achieved for oneself - never when working with others - and as soon as it’s gone the search for the new perfect begins.

By constantly searching for perfection you end up living in the fantastic future - in the “what could be” - instead of living in the here and now - in reality. It’s an escape from facing what you should do now.

Perfection is the siren song that will steer you into a vortex.

So fight it, seek reality, seek better, seek good enough.

In my childhood I was encouraged to seek perfection - to get straight A grades, to write the best assignments, to know every subject matter inside out at any moment - and that thought me that one can only achieve perfection for oneself.

When I wrote an assignment that I though was perfect - one that I was happy with in every regard - most often I got a B for it. Why? Because it wasn’t perfect for my teacher. Even when it was grammatically perfect, my teacher thought that I could improve flow, or phrasing, or something else. This theme continued in high school, college and at work. Every time I was satisfied - though something was perfect - at least one other person didn’t. There was always something to add, adjust or remove to transform my perfect into their perfect. And sometimes I came to adopt their perfect as my perfect, but sometimes I didn’t.

This taught me that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Every person will have a different opinion about what is perfect. Sometimes people can agree that something is perfect, other times they can’t. Even when a collective perfect is achieved it doesn’t last because every new person that comes along will have a new notion about what could be improved.

Searching for perfection among many people can be an impossible task. So don’t do it. Fight this notion. Don’t seek a consensus about what is perfect, do what is good enough for everybody, do that which is better than what you have now.

Later on, when I started working, I took part in meetings where we discussed that the perfect solution to a project would be.

This usually resulted in some sort of a shared notion of a perfect solution that was presented to the client, but no clear way how to get from where we are now to that perfect solution.

Since we didn’t want to inconvenience or disappoint the client we clang to that notion of perfect, this lead to many inconveniences and disappointments for us and the client.

Because we had such a rigid goal we never reconsidered if what we were doing made sense. So every now and then we ran into an insurmountable problem or built out nonsensical features that would eventually make sense after something else was built. We were going straight to perfect, regardless of what it took.

By thinking about the future we forgot about the road that we have to follow to get there. So don’t focus on the future where everything is perfect, focus on reality, focus on the here and now.

We could have presented the perfect solution as an eventual goal that may or may not come true, and commit to build out a project that brings us closer to it, and then commit to another project, and another, and another.

That way there isn’t a commitment to a grand goal, so both we and the client are free to change course at any time to avoid problems as they arise. We might not end up at perfect that way, but we would certainly get close to it. And maybe the definition of perfect would change along the way, to one which we could reach.

The worst kinds of projects at work were ones that never left the drawing board. On these kinds of projects the client was so obsessed about figuring out the perfect solution that they ran out of money before the product was even close to being done.

They spent weeks in meetings seeking the perfect solution, and always came up with something better than what they had before - they found a new perfect and moved the goal post there. That is the nature of being human - we always find a way to make things better than they are now, we can always dream bigger.

But you won’t ever make anything better if all you ever do is think about how you can make something better. Don’t obsess about doing something perfectly, just do it better, or good enough.

Seeking perfection can give you a vision of the future, but remember that it’s only a vision. If you follow it blindly it can lead you down a twisty and thorny road to nowhere. Use it as a compass to make things better than they are, or else fight its siren song tooth and nail for it can ruin everything it touches.


P.S. This topic has been on my mind for a long time. I tried to write it up a couple of times before but always fell short of the goal I set for my self - I didn’t notice that I was chasing perfection. And that’s something that I have struggled with as an adult. It’s only a few years back that I noticed how corrosive this chase for perfection can be. And it’s only a few weeks back that I learned that Tolkien shared the same notion. He said that Sauron started out as a perfectionist which desired order, and in his effort to make things perfect he became the embodiment of evil.


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