This is a straightforward saying that most of us know. The picture it conjures is one of a hyper-perfectionist, grooming their work so meticulously that it never gets finished. The concept of perfect work becomes the enemy of done work–work that was probably more than good enough a long time ago.
But, that’s not really how most of us make ‘perfect’ into our own enemy. Instead, most of us idealize our ideas. It’s the idea that’s perfect. With impossibly lofty goals for the idea, to aim for anything less would not be the idea. I observe this tendency in my friends, my sisters and myself. But the first time I considered this dichotomy between good and perfect, was with the idea that I wanted to be someone who reads a lot. Smart people read, and I wanted to be one of the smart people.
Now, I am an avid reader, but a comparatively new one. The first book I ever read was the bible about 13 years ago. Before that it was only the back of shampoo bottles on the toilet and whatever tidbits I needed to memorize for tests. Reading always frustrated me because I could never recall everything I read. It seemed that it required a lot of time and patience and focus, and offered comparatively little. Although I failed to get through any book before then, my religious inclination at the time gave me a reason to keep going back to the same book. I thought I was reenforcing my spiritual ideology by reading the bible daily, but I was actually learning a more fundamental lesson about accomplishing things.
The bible is set up a video game that levels up faster than you. The first two books have a strong narrative and are somewhat entertaining. My initial enthusiasm to read the bible was well supported in those first books. But by the third book, Leviticus, it’s getting hard to stick with the begets and begats. It had been then that I first realized perfection was impossible. I wasn’t going to be able to make myself read consistently–do my “quiet times” daily–if I expected to fully comprehend and retain all those mundane lineage details. I also realized that trying to retain all of them was resulting in retaining mostly none of them.
I resolved to get as much as I could when I read, but to not get hung up on getting everything. I could rely on context clues later to piece things together. Or, since I believed I’d be reading the bible for the rest of my life, I’d get another shot at understanding it the next time through. And that’s exactly how it worked. Going up and down sharply in its readability, the bible trained me to just keep going. Occasionally I would find that I wanted to stop and read again to understand more fully and that was closer to the ‘perfect’ I’d originally had in mind. But a lot of the time, I wouldn’t try again until a few months later on the next pass.
It changed everything. My resistance to the task of reading my bible almost completely evaporated. Soon, I was seeking out other material to read. And then material to make it easier to read material.
Before I put the bible down for the last time, I’d read it cover to cover around 15 times. I’d also read several dozen bible-related books. The more I was reading imperfectly, the more I found myself inching closer to the original ideal, though virtually never thinking about it.
For the first 17 years of my life, wanting to read perfectly kept me from reading at all. Although, a love and habit for reading has seeded itself deeply, I still find I have to intentionally dismantle the perfectionist in my mind over each new idea. Recently, an idea for an online book club stalled out when I couldn’t figure out how to include all the features I was envisioning. A good book club couldn’t happen because the perfect one was impossible.
The underlying principle, that is relevant to most situations, is that it’s better to act than not. Usually, only actions turn into opportunities. But most of us do not act because we can’t make a mental path all the way from our present situation to the perfect one. I have friends who take jobs they hate when the job they prepared for aren’t available to them, instead of fighting for jobs a few degrees off of what they really wanted. My sisters dream of the perfect parenting plans, note their implausibility, then fly by the seat of their pants instead of starting out with a good plan that works imperfectly.
Of course these are generalities. Though I don’t make perfect the enemy of good when it comes to reading, I’m still doing it in other areas of my life. My sisters and my friends have areas of their lives where they have supplanted their perfectionist with a good actionist. For most people, this is developed where action is demanded of them. Children and work, for example–they demand action and can force the compromise. But the forced nature of it might also obscure the effect in the rest of voluntary life.
The phenomenon has come into my awareness these days. Its harder to hide the tricks I play on myself. I suspect that this is in part because of the voluntary nature of how I came to the decision to act for what is good, instead of what is perfect. It’s for this reason that I think a commitment to literature and creativity in one’s personal life is so valuable. Accepting that it can’t be done perfectly is a must, and accepting our own imperfection is a prerequisite for a life full of action, and thus, opportunity.