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The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

windmillThe title of this post comes from Get Rich Slowly, a personal finance blog that I read regularly. The blog’s author, J. D. Roth, has fourteen tenets of responsible money management, and one of these, “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good,” is not only a wise rule for fiscal responsibility, but it has also become something of a mantra for me as I approach Year 4 on the tenure track.

The basic idea here, financially speaking, is that the quest for perfection whether the lowest interest rate, the best price, or the ideal time to start building an emergency fund leads us to put off doing the one thing that is most important in becoming fiscally healthy: getting started.

The same can be said for much of academe. Many of us in academia, wherever we are in our careers, are driven by a quest for perfection. We are used to success (which doesn’t mean that it necessarily comes easily). It can be very difficult to settle for “good enough,” especially given the ferocious competition that marks so much of the profession. Even before we are even in graduate school, we must compete for admission into programs; we compete for fellowships and funding; we compete for publications and placement on panels at conferences; and of course, there’s the Mack-Daddy of all competitions, the academic job market. As those of you who have survived the market can attest, the competition doesn’t end there, but I think I’ve made my point.

Given all of these contests and the stakes attached to them, who can blame us for striving for perfection? But there comes a time when the quest for perfection becomes counterproductive. There is such a thing as a point of diminishing returns. But how do we recognize this point, or recognize ourselves when we’ve reached it?

It might be sitting on your hard drive right now in the form of that article with which you aren’t quite satisfied. Or it might take the form of that 30 minute break between classes, which “isn’t enough time to get any real writing done.” Or maybe it’s the on the back of the envelope—you know, that idea that you jotted down last week because it seems really smart at the time, but you haven’t gotten around to actually working it out. And then that envelope has a friend, and they soon become acquainted with a napkin from happy hour the other day…

My point here is that we can always find reasons to hold off on something because it isn’t quite perfect, but often we would be better off if we could make friends with Perfect’s sibling, Good Enough. Instead of spending an hour looking through the closet for the perfect shirt to wear to the conference, or tearing the desk apart to find the perfect pen with which to take notes, or nit-picking over the perfect phrase/sentence/modifying clause in paragraph 17 of the article, in many cases our time would be better spent getting the task done and getting on to the next thing. Please understand—I’m not saying that language is unimportant or that you should show up at your next conference wearing ripped jeans and a dirty shirt, but at the same time, it is fairly common for perfectionists to use these kinds of tasks as ways of avoiding other things particularly when these other things can lead to the perfectionist’s biggest fear: rejection.

Earlier this year, Nels wrote “The Down and Dirty Article” about the importance of getting our work out there, even if it isn’t the absolute best work we’ve ever done. Maybe the piece won’t get accepted right away, but maybe it will, or maybe it will get a revise and resubmit. There’s only one thing that is certain, no one is going to publish your article if you don’t submit it. Just as no one is going to offer you a job if you don’t apply. Just as no one will fund your grant proposal if it is still on your hard drive. We can spend a lot of time chasing windmills, or we can accept the fact that perfect doesn’t exist in this world, give the paper/abstract/application/proposal/etc. our best effort, and send it on.

At the risk of sounding like one of those motivational posters that hang in career centers, the road to success is not paved with perfection. It is paved with determination and persistence. Don’t worry so much about being perfect (and I’m talking to myself here as much as to anyone else). Instead, just get going.

[Creative Commons image licensed by Flickr user photogramma1]

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