Thursday, July 21, 2011

Perfection is the Enemy of the Adequate

Perfection is the Enemy of the Adequate

That quote has been variously attributed to Voltaire, among others (e.g., Larry the Cable Guy, "Ger 'er Done!").  What does this mean?

It means that often, we can set ourselves up for failure by trying to everything perfectly.  Since we set a high standard for perfection, nothing ever gets done.   It is a form of passive-aggressive behavior.  Since something can't be done perfectly, it never gets done at all.

For example, my late Sister told me of a friend who lived in an older home.   They smoked a lot of dope and would talk - for hours - about how they were going to restore the home.  The living room needed a coat of paint.   But rather than mask around the doors and windows - or "cut in" as a professional painter would do, freehand with a brush, the homeowner decided the only "right" way to do it was to carefully remove all the hardwood trim, sand the walls, apply two coats of primer, and then paint.   And of course, the trim would all have to be sanded to bare wood and given several coats of urethane, with wet-sanding between coats.  The trim would then be reassembled and waxed.

This, of course, would be the most anal-retentive paint job imaginable.  And as you might imagine, it was never done.   People like that talk a big game, but never do anything.   Or if they do, they remove the trim, leave it scattered throughout the house, and never finish the project - living in a living room with no trim on the walls.  It is a trick the hoarder does - often disassembling appliances or other parts of the home, scattering the parts to the four winds and then saying they will "get to that someday" when they can get the right parts for it.

In our own lives, we can allow perfection to debilitate us - prevent us from getting our daily work done, or indeed, from every being happy.  Seeking perfection can be a form of mental illness - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  People with this affliction spend countless hours cleaning, arranging, and making their house and lives "perfect" - and never of course, achieving it.  And they are often terribly unhappy people - who often make other people unhappy.

A friend of mine has a buddy who has OCD.  Whenever he starts to flip out, he comes to visit my friend.  I asked him, "isn't he hard to have as a visitor?" and my friend replied, "Yea, but the house is never so clean - that's all he does while he is here!  Clean!  It's great!"

But expecting perfection is a set-up.  Because little in life is indeed perfect, and in fact, there are scientific theories that basically say you can expect things to be chaotic - and entropy to take its toll.  You can strive for perfection in everything - and never achieve it.

A better approach is to triage things to determine what needs to be perfect and what doesn't.  This makes better use of your time and allows you to get things done - the important things perfectly, the less important things less so.

For example, we are building this small house in our backyard.  Modern construction techniques are designed with imperfection in mind.  Many new-home buyers are shocked to discover that their dream home is not "perfect" - but then again, it is not designed to be.  Rough framing is erected and is made as plumb and level as is possible - within the given time constraints.  Due to variations in wood (bends, twists, sizes) and in cuts, no wall is every 100% absolutely plumb.   When windows and doors are installed, they are shimmed to make them level - and the "rough opening" is made larger than necessary to accommodate the variations in construction.

Similarly, when you finish the interior, sheetrock is never cut exactly to size all of the time.  And that is why you end up plastering the joints and seams (and screw holes) and sanding before painting.  Examine closely the walls in your own home.   Chances are, you can see seams and evidence of sheet rock compound, as well as drips and runs in paint.   No house is perfect - all have flaws.

But a house has to be built on a budget - to make a house perfect would be to make it unaffordable.  And somewhere along the line, you have to make a compromise between what is affordable and what is perfect.   And affordable usually wins every time.  Cost drives most Engineering designs - Engineering is not really about "coming up with cool new products!" but mostly about trying to make those products at a price point that people can actually afford to buy at.

We have finished sheetrocking, mudding, and sanding the studio and painted it tonight.   My partner insisted that we put down drop cloths first, to prevent paint from splattering on the concrete floor.   But, he wants to paint the concrete floor as the next step.  So what's the point?  Spending two hours putting down drop cloths and securing them, so they can be pulled up to paint?  You have to reach a point where you say, "It's a studio, paint the damn thing" - otherwise nothing ever gets done.

Many folks cling to perfection for fear of doing something wrong.  And perfection is the enemy of LEARNING as well.  I see this all the time when trying to teach someone how to use a computer.   They are convinced that if they push the wrong button, the thing will explode.  So they have to be "perfect" in every way.   A 10-year-old just pushes every button to see what will happen - and by doing so, learns how to use the computer. 

We see the same thing in school as well - the "cool" kids don't want to be seen as "uncool" by giving a wrong answer.  So they sit in the back of class and snicker at anyone who tries to participate.  But they don't participate themselves, and thus do not learn.  But getting the wrong answers - and making mistakes - is essential to learning.

And essential to inventing.  Many great inventions were the results of accidental discoveries - mistakes - rather than attempts to design a product.  If you never make mistakes, these serendipitous events would never occur.

Of course, this is not to say that being sloppy, disorganized, or doing shoddy work is the answer, either.   When I was at GM, the had a version of this slogan, "Not everything worth doing is worth doing well".  Unfortunately, for a time at least, some folks at GM thought that building a car was something not worth doing well.  And the results were predictable.

Thus, the secret is in the ability to triage your work - figuring out what can be done quickly and easily without sacrificing quality, and what needs to be done carefully and methodically to prevent mistakes from occurring.  This is, of course a hard thing to do.  But if you find yourself trying to do everything perfectly, something isn't right.