The enemy of the good

I first learned of Voltaire’s famous words “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” when my mom wrote them on a post-it note which she stuck to the basket where my Dad stores his keys, phone-charger, pager, and other miscellaneous items of importance.  I thought the quotation was just right (dare I say perfect?) for my Dad, a man who uses a tape measure before mowing the lawn to ensure proper dimensions for a croquet court and who spends hours upon hours crafting gifts of perfection, but I didn’t think it applied to me. 

The perfectly measured croquet court
A wooden spoon that my Dad made for me. The handle is hollowed out and filled with a small lead weight so that, when lying flat on a table, the bowl of the spoon won’t touch the table.

I’m not a perfectionist.  I take pride in a job well done, and I certainly appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted sentence or piece of artwork, but I often favor efficiency over the ideal.  I don’t measure ingredients when I cook and I infrequently (very infrequently) dust my base boards. 

And yet, there have been numerous instances in which Voltaire’s words have come to mind as I have been working on a task.  I’ve thought of them as I’ve agonized over the phrasing of an email.  I’ve thought of them as I’ve prepared talks to give at work.  And I’ve thought of them as I’ve written posts for this blog. 

In each of these instances, one of two things has happened: I’ve wasted a lot of time (spending an hour on an email that would have been equally well-received if written in fifteen minutes) or, infinitely worse, I’ve refrained from doing something because I was too afraid/prideful/cautious/insecure/vain to present good to the world, and I didn’t have time (or the capability, period) to present perfection.

In other words, I’ve frittered away precious time and I’ve held myself back — two things that I’m not proud of and that I don’t want to continue.  These are good reasons for me to keep Voltaire’s maxim in mind, self-identified perfectionist or not.