Never Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

Voltaire portrait“Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.  This is my preferred translation of Voltaire’s statement, sometimes also translated as “the best is the enemy of the good”.  I interpret it as a warning against perfectionism.

Our writing isn’t good enough, so we put off submitting it for publication; we aren’t attractive enough, so we avoid approaching someone; our qualifications fall short, so we don’t apply for a job; or the timing isn’t right, so we put off having a child.

But writing is often published that wasn’t Perfectly written, plenty of guys get the girl without movie-star Perfect looks, and people get jobs without Perfect qualifications.  Really, what is “Perfect”?  Can there be a “perfectly written” piece of writing?  Or a candidate “perfectly” qualified for a job?  For the ancient Greek philosopher Plato “Perfect” versions of everything actually existed in a world of “Forms”, and some Christians may believe this type of Perfection is possible in Heaven, but whether or not one believes in Forms or Heaven, this type of Perfection does not necessarily exist here on Earth.

Rather than accepting an unobtainable definition of perfection based on Forms or Heaven, those of us that want to improve our lives in this world need a definition of “perfect” more suited to reality.  It is often helpful to think of perfect as the best possible under the actual circumstances.  A perfect piece of writing – the best one can do with the talents one has in the time made available for it.  Perfect preparation for a job interview – one has researched about the company and prepared for the questions most likely to be asked.  Perfectly prepared to have a baby – well, OK, that kind of perfection does not actually exist.

Another example:   my father once planned for years to write an important personal letter to a family member.  He wanted its sentiments to be just right.  He never sent it, until finally a health condition prompted him to do so.  Which letter means more to the recipient, a nearly-perfect draft that wasn’t sent because it wasn’t “perfect” yet, or a very good one that was sent and read?  Fortunately, my father’s health condition resolved favorably, but if it hadn’t, the perfect letter would have destroyed the good letter by preventing any letter from being sent.  As Voltaire warned: never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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3 Responses to Never Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

  1. Lynda Hoggan says:

    A good reminder for me, and perfect timing for a friend in need!

  2. Lynda Hoggan says:

    Oops, I mean “good” timing for a friend in need! 🙂

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