November 4 – Finding the razor edge between very good, and perfect

November 4. “The difference between failure and success is doing a thing nearly right and doing it exactly right.” (Anonymous)

Every once in a while, a quote pops up in this book that I just don’t agree with. Today is one of those days.

For those who are new to my blog, I am engaged in a 365 project where I am writing one blog post for each day of the year. I am using the book Inspiration 365 Days a Year, by Zig Ziglar as the subject matter for the posts each day. Since January 1 I have written one post to go with each of the quotes in the book. The idea is to take whatever quote is up next, and write something about it – my personal reflection. Today’s reflection will be about how this quote doesn’t do it for me, at least not completely.

Recently I have had occasion to mention a different quote to some family and friends. That quote is “perfection is the enemy of good”. This principle has come up in philosophy, and in Shakespearean literature. It says that reaching perfection is impossible, and frequently ruins a good effort, or prevents a good effort from seeing the light of day.

Today’s quote is suggesting that to be successful one has to do things exactly right, rather than nearly right. The converse would say that doing something only nearly right, then, would be failure. In my opinion, this quote is leaning far too heavily on the side of perfectionism.

There has to be a balance in life between doing something exceptionally well, and being a perfectionist. All too often the perfectionist is left in the dust by someone who has done something exceptionally well and has gotten it out the door, while the perfectionist is still tinkering. Measuring success as only being attained when something is perfect, or “exactly right”, sets me up to be left behind by someone who has done a very good job, and is satisfied with their results.

Recently I was on a camping trip having a discussion about this concept. On that trip were two dear friends, whom I love very much. One of them is a confessed perfectionist, while the other takes a very pragmatic approach to life. While one of them may sometimes obsess about the details, and making sure that she has things just so, the other will reach a level of excellence, and will step back and say “that is good enough.” The second friend isn’t putting out sloppy work, she is just recognizing that there comes a time when, in her words “done is better than perfect”. The confessed perfectionist does put out very high quality work, and she meets her deadlines, but sometimes meeting those deadlines comes at the expense of lost sleep. Also, she will put out work that she herself is not completely satisfied with, even though all who see it marvel at the excellence.

I do not think that one needs to be perfect, or to do things exactly right to be successful. Perfection is extremely elusive, and usually impossible.

I remember once reading an article about master artists, and how they approach their work. In the article one of the painters said that any painting, no matter how perfect it may seem to one person, could be improved upon by another artist. And, once improved by that artist, could then be improved again by another, and so on. The article was saying that to be a masterpiece, perfection was not needed, because perfection is essentially impossible.

I wrote yesterday about my pragmatic leanings, and that may be coming out even more strongly in my writing today. I am clearly, and squarely on the side of saying that something well done and finished is far better than something I am striving to protect which is still sitting incomplete on my work table.

There is a danger to falling too far down this side of the argument. My perfectionist friend might counsel me that if I slip too far down the slope of pragmatism, I risk quality in general. What is “good enough” today, might looks like perfection tomorrow, and so tomorrow I might not strive to reach the level I did today. The next day, tomorrow’s work may look like perfection, and so I aim just a little lower, and so on. Soon, what was once very good becomes average and unremarkable. Worse, it becomes sloppy. And, she would be right!

This is where the side of me that is always looking to improve kicks in. I am constantly looking for ways to do things a little better than I did them the last time. For me, the drive for continuous improvement is the counter weight that keeps me on the edge between perfectionism and sloppiness.

Today my reflection is on the healthy balance that I must have when setting high standards in life. To be successful I must find the razor’s edge that sits between very good, and perfect, and then I must perch myself on that edge. To fall down either side can lead to failure.

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