Perfect is the Enemy of the Good… or Good Enough Isn’t

The cognitive dissonance from these two contradictory rules was teasing me ever since I could remember because each rule individually makes so much sense. Finally the dots connected. Curious? Read on!

Like many, I easily fall into the trap of treading around to improve ever so slightly something that is already good enough. I usually enjoy it, and the time flies while I stay in flow. It was only after I started working professionally it became obvious to me that Pareto principle really does rule the business world: you spend 20% of the effort on 80% of the result, and then 80% of the effort on the rest 20% of the result. In an environment where the tasks are literally infinite, time is money, and the entire game is one of optimization, to be successful, one must learn to let it go and stop when the result is good enough, because business success is the efficiency of getting good enough results, by definition.

Even in everyday life, one must recognize that the perfect is the enemy of the good, as Voltaire noted. If you ever planned a wedding or another big event for the first time you’d know what I mean. Luckily, the skill of detaching and stopping at a “good enough” point is easily transferable from professional into everyday life as well.

And here comes a harder point. Take any book about human happiness, or even human psychology in general, and you will notice that one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the pinnacle of happiness, as well as an infinite source of it, is self-actualization. One obviously needs to satisfy the basic needs, but beyond that the single most important rule of staying mentally sound and happy is doing something very very well, the best one possibly can. Some call it “vocation”, or “destiny”, while others describe it as “be the best version of yourself” or, to avoid the arbitrariness of “best” — “one does it because one can”.

For an approachable example, just listen to Alex Honnold talking about why he free soloed the El Capitan (which seems borderline insane and reckless). He says that no one has ever done it before, and he believed he could do it, and therefore he had to. He mentions how his mother always said to them “good enough — isn’t”. He is right: there is always room for improvement, and we must strive to be the best we can, and from it we can derive deep happiness, infinitely.

Spelled out like this, it becomes clear that these two rules are not contradictory at all, in fact, they are complimentary. The applicability domain changes based on the time horizon. If one’s goal is transient, intermediate or could be measured by something external — in other words a tactical problem — the first principle applies — stop at “good enough”. If the goal is permanent and could only be assessed by one self, in other words a strategic problem — good enough isn’t indeed.