Don’t let perfect be an enemy of the good

Don’t let perfect be an enemy of the good.

This aphorism is an old Italian proverb first made popular by Voltaire who used it in his poem La Bégueule. The literal translation is, the best is the enemy of the good. 

Other philosophers and writers have expressed the thought in slightly different ways. Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” Shakespeare: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”

Perfection is impossible to achieve, so pursuing it is sometimes unnecessary, even counterproductive. The pursuit of perfection can become inefficient and produce diminishing returns. We need to know when good enough is good enough.

Robert Watson-Watt, who developed early warning radar in Britain to counter the rapid growth of the Luftwaffe, warned of a “cult of the imperfect” in which imperfect is unacceptable. (He got pushback on early versions of his radar system because it wasn’t “perfect.”) Instead of waiting until something is perfected, he suggested, “Give them the third best to go with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.” That wise perspective helped the Allies win the war.

Sometimes “done” is adequate. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of done.

    • Only spend 45 minutes cleaning your car. You could devote two hours to the project but is the extra time worth it? It may rain tomorrow.
    • Want to acknowledge a friend’s birthday? A handwritten, slow-mailed notecard may be the most impactful, but a short phone call or text message will get the job done.
    • Instead of waiting to get the perfect tool to do a job, improvise and get it done.

Obviously, there are situations when setting the highest standard is important. I want my pharmacist to be fastidious when filling my prescriptions and pilots should be perfectionistic when evaluating a plane’s airworthiness. 

But don’t let perfect become an enemy of good and done.

14 Replies to “Don’t let perfect be an enemy of the good”

  1. Many a good relationship has been sidetracked because one of the two would only settle for perfection. Some flaws are worth the compromise.

  2. Great message! “Good to Great” by Jim Collins- first line in the book: “Good is the enemy of great” which takes your point and “turns it around ” a bit! Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Dick, for responding. I need to reread that statement from Jim Collins. Also, I’d be interested to see how many companies that he profiled in his book are still in business 🙂

  3. That was so good and true. Expecting perfection from others and others expecting it from you can be so destructive! I think we need to be our best, but expecting perfection can really be damaging to all.
    Things can be really, really good which can make everyone happy.
    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Toni Wessley

    1. Thanks, Toni. You’re right; the expectation of perfection in relationships is inordinate and damaging. Take care, Don.

  4. My wife is currently caught between her cardiologist, who is tinkering with her meds to further lower her BP and cholesterol (both of which have been in the normal range), and her kidney doctor, who is trying to get her creatinine back into or “near” its normal range by eliminating one med and lowering another’s dosage. So far the kidney doctor’s approach has worked, and she is satisfied with good enough, but now the cardiologist wants to try another new med. I told him that “perfect is the enemy of good enough”. I feel as if I, a non-medical, am between to doctors, each with their own field of knowledge and approaches to patient care.

    1. Negotiating the advice of several physicians can be channeling. They all want to help, but sometimes see the issue from their specific field. I hope your wife finds that good balance of medicine. Take care, Don.

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