When the Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” – Confucius

A few days ago, we discovered that one of our children had drawn all over our family room couch with an ink pen, leaving marks everywhere. The damage wasn’t permanent, but cleaning it all up was going to take a couple of hours.

We sat all of our children down to figure out exactly what had happened and all three of them denied it. They all had reasons for why they couldn’t have done it, but all of those reasons had giant logical holes.

We offered punishments and then gradually raised the stakes on them, not so much for marking up the couch, but for one of them not being honest about it. None of the three of them confessed.

Eventually, I got frustrated. Really frustrated. And when I get frustrated with parenting situations, I go to another room for a while so that I won’t wind up screaming and ranting and raving.

As I walked out of the family room and headed toward my office, I looked around me and, for some reason, all I could see were things that I hadn’t done and mistakes I had made. I stopped at the refrigerator to grab a water bottle and I saw something in there that had spilled and dried. I saw a bunch of toys in the living room that hadn’t been picked up. I saw a basket full of unsorted mail. I saw an ongoing organization project in my office that was far from completion.

By the time I sat down again, I felt like an utter failure as a parent, as a husband, and as a homeowner.

The thing is, I know rationally that I’m not a failure in any of those areas. I have a strong marriage with a wonderful wife. I have three kids that consistently make really good choices – and they’re children, part of which means learning right from wrong. We’re in great financial shape, to the point where we have the financial resources to make lots of pretty amazing life choices should we do so. I’ve basically designed my own career. I have a large social network and a healthy pile of close friends.

That doesn’t change the fact that I can sometimes feel like a failure.

How exactly does that happen, though? Why would I feel like a failure when, by many objective measures, I’m not a failure?

For me, part of the reason for that sensation is that, no matter how good things are, I want them to be better. Most of the time, that attitude is a good thing, as it pushes me to constantly improve and constantly work hard for something better. Sometimes, though, it can be a bad thing. I can look around a good situation and see only the flaws.

It’s the old “is the glass half empty or is it half full” thing. I can look at a glass that’s 80% full and either be glad that it’s 80% full or wonder why it’s not 100% full.

Why is this a big deal, though? For me and for many others, an ongoing sense that you’re not achieving anything positive can lead to negative actions that make things worse. If I look around a messy house and feel as though it’s a sign of failure rather than something to achieve, it’s easy to just throw up my hands and let a small flaw get worse and worse and worse until it undoes the great thing that I’ve built.

Rather than feeling empowered to take on some challenges on that walk through my house, I feel like a failure. I sit down in my chair and rather than coming up with a plan to tackle the things I’ve seen, I turn on a computer game. Later, I become really tempted to make a few online purchases, looking for that little burst of happiness and pleasure that such things can provide.

Here’s the thing: it’s not the problems themselves that cause failure. It’s not my children’s refusal to admit making a huge mess of our couch or the mess in the refrigerator or the pile of mail that are causing the real problems here. It’s how I handle them – or don’t handle them. I look at those things, feel like a failure, and then act like one, avoiding the problems and instead retreating into a shell.

It’s like that old saying goes – the perfect is the enemy of the good. I find that, time and time again, if I get hung up on the imperfections of something that’s good in my life, I often lose sight of how good things actually are. Getting hung up on those imperfections can cause me to give up on a good thing and to not give it the quality attention that it deserves.

I find that several strategies help me stay on track and keep moving forward on the good things in my life, even if they can seem imperfect and flawed in my eyes.

Strategy 1 – Practice Daily Gratitude

Every single day, I spend at least a few minutes looking through my life at the good things that I have and the good things I have achieved. I look at the strong relationships I have, the great opportunities I have, and even the simple things I have to enjoy in my life and in the world around me.

I’m an avid journaler. Almost every day, I make a journal entry that lists some of the things that happened each day. Along with that, I try to make a short list of some of the things I’m grateful for in my life. I try to write down at least five things.

Doing this is incredibly powerful in helping me realize how many good things I have in my life and how things really aren’t that bad. It’s easy to get obsessed about flaws and problems and see things for being far worse than they are. A gratitude journal helps me to avoid getting caught in that trap.

If you’d rather use an electronic tool for this instead of a paper journal, there are many apps that handle this kind of thing perfectly. One that I’ve particularly liked is Gratitude 365.

Strategy 2 – Accept That Flaws and Setbacks Will Happen and That No Plan Is Perfect

No matter how carefully you plan something and no matter how masterfully you execute that plan, you’re going to have some setbacks. Factors outside of your control – and there are always factors outside of your control – are going to deliver challenges and problems that you simply didn’t see coming, and that’s going to result in unexpected outcomes, often outcomes that aren’t as fantastic as you originally envisioned.

This is not a flaw in your plans. This is not a mistake. This is not a demonstration of your failure.

This is life.

No matter what you do, things are going to go off the rails. The real question isn’t how perfect your plan is for every contingency, because it isn’t. The real question is how you handle the inevitable “going off the rails” with your plan, because that is inevitable.

Accept that whatever you have cooked up is going to have some problems, not because of you, but because of the rest of the world. In other words, your plans are good, but they’re not perfect, and what will turn your plans from good to great is how you choose to handle those unforeseen events.

For me, the best approach for handling unforeseen events is visualization. I often try to imagine all sorts of horrible things happening to the plans I make. What could go wrong here? is something I try to ask myself a lot. More often than you might think, I’ll plan ahead for some sort of disaster I imagined, only to find that something much like that disaster actually happens and I’m able to effortlessly handle it. My original plan wouldn’t have handled it at all, but because I thought about how badly things could go, I was ready to handle that disaster.

A great example of this comes from our family dinner a few days ago. I knew that our daughter’s doctor was going to call with some test results, but I also knew that I needed to make supper and get it on the table. I went ahead with the supper plan, but while I was cooking, I thought about ways to alter that plan if the doctor called and wanted to talk for ten minutes. What could I do to save supper?

Sure enough, the doctor called, and because I had thought about that outcome, I was able to rescue supper. I just killed the heat on the main pot and moved it to another burner that wasn’t on and allowed the pasta to keep cooking in the very hot but not quite boiling water, and I also pulled the breadsticks out of the oven and let them sit still on the baking sheet on top of the hot pasta pot. I was able to stop and talk to the doctor for a bit and still salvage supper.

What if I hadn’t been able to plan ahead like that? What if the call had been completely unexpected? Well, I might have ruined supper, but that wouldn’t mean that everything was a failure. It just meant that something unexpected happened.

Strategy 3 – Focus on the Processes, Not on the Outcomes

It’s easy to stay focused on the outcomes of the things that you’re doing. The results are often what we’re judged on, after all.

I find that focusing on results is a good approach for something you might do once or twice in your life, but the truth is that the vast majority of our lives is spent on repeated things. We do some things over and over and over again – preparing meals, cleaning house, completing common work tasks, taking care of ourselves, and so on.

For those things – the things that end up filling most of our lives – it can be easy to feel like a failure when we don’t get the outcome we expect. The children misbehave. The meal is burnt. The house is a mess. Things aren’t coming out in the pristine form that we hoped for.

Those results aren the result of some kind of personal failing or some kind of unsolvable problem. Those bad results are usually due to not having a good process in place for things. Either you haven’t mastered a very learnable skill or you don’t have a good routine in place for getting good results.

Rather than looking at the outcome and thinking that it’s a complete disaster, look instead at the process. You’ll often find that most of the process is pretty good and you need to change only a detail or two to get spectacular results.

For example, let’s say that you’re frustrated by a disastrous outcome for a meal. What happened? Well, it was likely a mix of ten good steps and one or two bad ones. Maybe you executed everything correctly but you left the temperature too high or you actually added four teaspoons of salt rather than 1/4 teaspoon.

It’s easy to get lost in the disastrous outcome and feel like a failure, but the truth is that you executed 95% of things like a charm and that there was only one flaw in the whole picture. Rather than feeling like the entire procedure needs to be scrapped, focus instead on fixing that one little piece of the procedure.

In other words, rather than looking at a bad outcome as a complete disaster, look at the steps you followed to get to that outcome. Often, you’ll find that 90% of your steps were correct. That means you only need to figure out a better approach for a few of the steps, and you can actually feel good about how much of the plan that you executed well.

Strategy 4 – Maximize the Things I’m Good At

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. I’m good, for example, at helping my children piece through school problems and also helping them work through their own problems internally, but I’m not always good at handling discipline issues when they’ve made a mistake. I’m good at generating ideas and writing first drafts, but I’m not always good at honing those first drafts into a great finished piece. You get the idea.

One of the best ways to feel like everything is falling apart in life is to constantly be pushed into your weak areas. I feel like a complete failure as a parent when I’m faced with a lot of discipline issues, for instance. I feel like a horrible writer when I have to spend a lot of time on edits.

I know that I’m a good parent and at least a decent writer, but when I’m pushed into those weak areas, I don’t feel like a good parent. I don’t feel like a good writer. I feel like a disaster.

So, rather than dwelling on those flaws and letting them make me feel like a failure, I try to look for ways to use my strengths as much as possible and use my weaknesses as little as possible.

For example, with my parenting, I look for situations where I can really help the most with the things that I’m good at, like talking them through difficult challenges in their lives. When those come up, I step up to the plate and take on those challenges, because I know I’m relatively good at handling them. On the other hand, when it comes to areas where I’m not always so good, like deciding appropriate discipline, I usually talk to others before making that decision (usually my wife).

The same thing is true with my writing. Rather than writing repeated drafts of my articles, I focus instead on thinking through my ideas a lot and brainstorming them before even attempting to write. I focus on trying to write a very good first draft, and then I trust that first draft a great deal because I know that, if anything, major revisions tend to make my articles worse.

Another example comes in the kitchen. I can cook amazing things if I can focus on one or two things at once, but when I have things going on multiple burners and in the oven, it often ends badly. My solution there is to look for recipes that primarily focus on one item being cooked at a time, even if that means dropping a few tasty recipes along the way. It allows me to use my strengths rather than my weaknesses.

When I see flaws in my life, I usually think of them as examples of how I’m weak in a particular area in my life, and rather than being obsessed with that weakness and continually feeling like I’m failing in that area, I look instead for how I’m strong in that area and try to focus on my strengths if I can.

Solution #5 – Get Some Sleep!

Whenever I am not getting adequate sleep, I almost always find myself being far more critical of myself than I am when I’m well rested.

Don’t get me wrong, some self-criticism is fine. Without self-criticism, you can never improve. However, self-criticism that’s allowed to run rampant usually ends up in disaster, as you begin to view your entire life as a failure when you’re just like everyone else – a few imperfections mixed in with a lot of good things.

The more rest I get – and the more rested my mind is when I evaluate my life and look at my to-do list – the better I am at seeing something close to the true picture. Rather than just seeing a pile of failure and personal flaws, I see the truth, which is that my life is a big mix of successes with some things I need to improve on mixed in there.

When you see your life from that perspective, seif-improvement feels much more realistic and much more exciting. You see that you do have a good foundation to start from and that your life is good, even great, with just a few flaws mixed in there that you can work on.

Rather than thinking of yourself as someone who is failing at achieving perfection and getting caught up in a sense of failure, you view yourself as a good person with potential greatness and having just a few things to work on.

For me, the biggest switch between these mindsets is sleep, and the better my sleep is (around seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep), the more attuned I am to the healthier perspective.

Final Thoughts

So, what happened with the whole “ink on the couch” episode?

After about a day, our youngest child confessed to having done it, which was appropriate since we were suspicious that he was the culprit. He lost most of his favorite toys for a while as a punishment – one day for the actual ink drawings, but several days more for not being honest about having done it.

The same day our youngest one confessed, I took on some of the other problems I spotted around the house. I went through the backed-up mail. I cleaned up the spill in the fridge. I took some big steps toward reorganizing my office. I got some exercise, too, and played some board games with my children.

At the end of the day, I felt good about things. Yes, things weren’t perfect, but they were good, and some elements were even what I would call great. They don’t need to be perfect to be good. They don’t need to be perfect to be great.

That’s the attitude I need to have moving forward. Things are good. My life is full of good things, from the people I love to the things I have the opportunity to experience. In most regards, they’re better than they used to be, and that improvement was due in large part to my own efforts. Things aren’t perfect – nothing ever is – but they can always be a little better. It’s up to me to make them better, and I know that because many of the good things I already have are the result of my own efforts. When I choose not to try to make things better, I risk just treading water or even making things worse.

Perfection? Making that my goal is just going to make me feel like a failure. Instead, my goal is to try to be just a little bit better than I was yesterday in at least one area of my life, and to try not to take steps backward in other areas. If I can do that, over and over and over, I’m going to build a good future that is going to have pretty good outcomes no matter what life throws at me.

You can do the same thing. Simply strive every day to do things a little bit better in at least one area, and don’t take a step back in other areas, and don’t worry about being perfect because perfect is literally impossible. If you can just repeat that over and over, things will always be good, no matter what life throws at you.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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