“Perfect is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire
Perfection kills innovation. Sure, other factors contribute to killing innovation — ideas that don’t solve problems and a lack of disciplined execution come to mind — but a root cause of innovation failures can be traced back to actions taken by innovators, investors and problem-solvers seeking perfection. Striving for perfection results in the unintended consequence of destroying the creative process, as it is actually the imperfect nature of the creative process that gives birth to a continuous cycle of creating, testing, failing, improving, re-testing, and failing again and again. This is called innovation.
However, striving for perfection can — and most often does — lead to high achievement. Trying to achieve perfection usually creates laser focus and disciplined action. At its core, however, the process of striving for perfection is underscored by two types of stress.
The first, distress, is well known and contributes to poor physical and mental health, among other detrimental outcomes. The second, eustress, is a “healthier” version of stress that can spur positive growth and stratospheric achievement when experienced by those talented enough to transform eustress into game-changing outcomes. Think of those doctors, athletes, artists, teachers, business owners, musicians, students, world leaders, engineers, scientists, writers, etc., who demonstrate positive growth and achieve world-class results by striving for perfection. Their accomplishments as experts in their respective fields are naturally lauded and revered.
Malcolm Gladwell illustrates this point in his book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” when he writes about the 10,000-hour rule. It was only after logging 10,000 hours that The Beatles, Bill Gates, Mozart and other high performers entered into the pantheon of greatness. Gladwell’s insight underscores the difference between high-level achievement and the quest for perfection.
The Fab Four, Gates, Mozart and other high level achievers most likely didn’t fuss over every minute spent honing their expertise; for sanity’s sake, let’s hope they didn’t. Yet, they were extremely focused and disciplined. Perfectionists, on the other hand, agonize over every decision, over-think, constantly second guess (both themselves and others) and ultimately fail to make measurable progress toward meaningful outcomes.
I believe most people are born to be creative and possess an active, unlimited imagination. A good many of us are hardwired to tap into our creative potential and invent, innovate, solve problems and do extraordinary things.
And best of all, they do go out and do these things because they very much believe in themselves while also allowing for failures, mistakes and imperfections.
Conversely, perfectionists recognize their great talents, yet they’re fearful of making mistakes. Or, they can’t bear the thought of producing a less-than-perfect outcome. They fuss and fret because they believe everything must be perfect before a new product or service is launched. These perfectionists drive colleagues crazy, annoy customers, chase partners away and fail to capitalize on one opportunity after another. These are the people who take their ingenuity, their dreams and their game-changing ideas with them to their graves.
This is why I challenge you to understand the consequences of not taking action because you’re convinced that what you will produce won’t be perfect. Every one of us has the potential to bring positive, lasting change to the world; who cares if what is produced doesn’t measure up to certain standards? Granted, if you design heart stents, I implore you to be perfect. If you construct bridges, please be perfect. But, for those of us whose creations and output do not require precision accuracy, we are wasting precious time striving for perfection.
Instead, “good enough” is good enough when bringing innovative, inventive products and services to the marketplace. Being good enough worked for Microsoft when the company released “buggy” software that propelled the multi-billion dollar company to the top of a multi-trillion dollar industry. Sure, Bill Gates spent thousands of hours perfecting his programming abilities, which led Microsoft to unprecedented success. However, he did so without his software or his company being perfect. What he has to show for this non-perfection is the title of the world’s richest person.
This is why I implore you to realize the danger of waiting for the “perfect time” before chasing and fulfilling your dreams. Perfection derails goals, squashes dreams and deflates aspirations. It leads to failure — not the kind of failure that results in successful innovation — and festers regret. Perfectionism can debilitate you and transform your hopes into despair. Being a perfectionist can make you the “anti Bill Gates.”
The objective of any successful innovation is to create what did not exist, to improve on what already existed and to solve problems — even if the solutions are infinitesimally small. And if you want to produce successful innovation, do not wait for “the perfect time” to do so; there is no such time. The more time spent waiting for the perfect time, the more enthusiasm that is lost and the less energy that is available to advance successful problem-solving innovations. Solutions need enthusiasm and energy to be born and run, but perfectionism kills enthusiasm and slows down progress. That’s why it helps to take “baby steps” when innovating, even if the first few steps are the farthest thing from near-perfect. You should not see your modest beginnings as “ugly.” Ugly or not, each step is yours, which is exactly the point of starting…somewhere.