Updated on 12.17.09

The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Trent Hamm

Everyone’s done it. We start out with some fantastic goal in mind. I’m going to save up for a down payment in three years. I’m going to lose 50 pounds this year. I’m going to get all of my financial paperwork straight. I’m going to be frugal.

I’m quite guilty of this myself. I’ll often strive for some sort of financial perfection, but then I’ll find myself spending money on something unnecessary (for example, I think I overspent on Christmas this year) or I’ll forget some important financial task that needs to be done, even if it’s written on my calendar.

I’ll stop by the local game shop to see if anyone’s around for the local board gaming group – and wind up walking out of there with a new game to play myself.

I’ll misplace a bill and be late in paying it, even though I have far more than enough money to cover it.

I’ll put aside a rebate form I need to fill out – then find it three months later.

At those times, it’s really tempting to tell myself that I’m a failure, that all of my hard work is really for naught because I still succumb to making mistakes – and sometimes, those mistakes are pretty sizeable ones. I’ll beat myself up over a mistake, I’ll believe I’m a failure, and I’ll wonder why I even bother.

At those times, I need to just remember one key thing.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Mistakes are not failures. Mistakes are a step or two backward on a journey of a thousand miles, one in which you’ve already progressed a long way. Even after a mistake, you’ve still made a lot of progress from where you’ve started. More importantly, after a mistake, you’ve learned something about yourself and about the goal you’re trying to achieve. And perhaps most important of all, mistakes are part of life. Everyone makes them, whether you see them or not.

Perfection demands a lack of mistakes, and when you set yourself up expecting perfection, you’re doomed to fail from the start.

Success comes from recognizing that mistakes happen, that you can’t beat yourself up over them, and that you need to step back and learn from them.

When I stop by the game store now, I’ll be on guard against temptation, either by leaving my wallet behind or by judiciously applying the ten second rule.

When I get a bill or a rebate form, I pay it immediately or I place it front and center until I do pay it or fill it out.

I take steps backward all the time and I could use that as a reason to give up and to define myself as a failure. But when I look at where I was then and where I am now, I realize I’ve already come a long way on my journey and that my mistake is just a few steps backward after miles walking forward.

If I gave up after those few steps backward, that would be a real tragedy, wouldn’t it?

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  1. Daniel says:

    Being perfect means not repeating mistakes. Nobody is perfect all the time, but by constantly growing and learning, we can constantly improve.

  2. Derek Cormier says:

    Kinda funny, Bill Clinton used that exact language when speaking to the Senate regarding the health care bill. It was quoted in this morning’s NY Post.

    Rock on!

  3. Chelsea says:

    This really struck a chord with me this morning… as applied to normal healthy eating and all the sweets around this time of year.

  4. katie says:

    So true. I’m finally coming to understand this principle and to learn when enough is enough.

  5. Hannah says:

    Isn’t this like JD Roth’s motto over at Get Rich Slowly?

  6. Money Funk says:

    I was thinking about the same thoughts as I was hiking our local mountains. Success is not a straight line up. Uust as hiking has it’s ups and downs and bends. It’s a journey and that is what makes the end so sweet. We work hard to reach the summit.

    You are right, if we strive to be perfect than we are doomed to fail from the start. It’s better to anticipate obstacles and go with the flow in the right direction.

  7. Mark says:

    Good is the enemy of great. It’s okay to make mistakes. Just don’t repeat them. Past performance is indicative of future results. Learn from the past.

  8. So too unrealistic of a goal guarantees failure.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  9. *pol says:

    Thank you!
    That was very well put. I will stop beating myself up about the things I have not acheived this year (my battle is with clutter). I have to remember the progress and move forward from this point!

  10. Kara says:

    This is a really good post. This is not the first time that I have heard this saying latley. As mentioned before, JD at GRS uses it, but I have also heard it a couple of times on TV latley. My question is: Does anyone know where that saying originated? This is not a “Trent should cite his sources” comment. I’m just wondering where the saying came from

  11. J.D. says:

    @Kara (#10)
    I’m not sure where I first heard “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. In my mind — faulty as it is — I came up with it on my own. I’m not nearly that clever, though, so I’m sure I heard it somewhere else first. I do know that Voltaire made the saying famous. I thought Aristotle might have said something similar, but I think I’m hallucinating. Regardless, it’s a vital part of my philosophy. I think that striving for “perfect” solutions paralyzes a lot of people…

  12. Joan says:

    Trent: Thank you for the great posts during this past year. (ACTUALLY THREE YEARS) Most of all, I want to thank you that my email didn’t fill up with a bunch of junk after I signed up for your blog. Just in the last couple of months; I have signed up for three more blogs (your blog was the only one until then)since signing up for those three blogs I have received a bunch of junk. It is almost impossible to get rid of that crap; instead it seems to multiply. So thank you again for your ethics, great posts, and I am in awe of how you can make even subjects that I have no interest in so interesting. GREAT WORK.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I got the “perfect is the enemy of the good” quote from my high school English teacher, Randy Byrn, who attributed it to Voltaire. He refused to ever give anyone 100% on any essay turned in because, in his eyes, there is no perfection in life and to constantly strive for it means you become single-minded and a poorly-rounded person.

  14. Evita says:

    Thank you Trent. This is exactly what I needed to read this morning! Xmas time is so trying for would-be frugalists!

  15. Ryan K says:

    I started to post a response. Then I realized it was verbatim what Evita said. Really. This is exactly what I needed! I’m back!

  16. Matt Jabs says:

    Great post here… all of this rings very true in my own life. I find that by nature I want to do everything perfect out of the gate and sometimes that can really paralyze my efforts.

    I don’t know if I’m afraid of failure or what, but I have to actively train myself to JUST DO IT without worrying about whether or not things are perfect.

    We all make mistakes, it is more important for us to get our work done than it is for us to get our work perfect! Once it’s done we can always go back and tweak it later. :-)

  17. julia says:

    Awesome post and comments too. I even wrote myself a reminder to do things imperfectly – on purpose-to get comfortable with imperfection -especially in situations where it really does not matter. I can get so caught up in creating a perfect workpaper for my job when all I really need is to provide “sufficient evidence”….:)

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