Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Why Better Will Always Beat Perfection

Have you ever found yourself working on a project or developing some idea and you want to make it perfect? I know there’s been a few times where I find myself obsessing over various details, attempting to reach that lofty pinnacle of perfection. While it’s understood that perfection can be very difficult if not almost impossible to achieve, one factor that we consider less is how it can also be a disadvantage.

Bet I piqued your curiosity with that unusual statement. Allow me now to explain what I mean by it.

Let’s say I was developing a new product line and naturally, I want to create the perfect version of it. So I ask ten people at random what would make this product perfect in their eyes. Invariably, this leads to me getting ten different versions of what I need to do to make this product perfect – not exactly a cost-effective approach. But let’s say I go back to these ten people and ask them instead ‘Based on what the product does right now, what would you say would make it even better?’. In asking this question, I’m sure to get one or two similar answers which if I were to implement as changes to my product, the others who hadn’t suggested it would nonetheless agree were changes that definitely improved my product.

To understand what exactly is going on here, let’s look at another version of this question. In this case, let’s say I asked these ten individuals to describe what they would consider to be a perfect day. I’m sure you can imagine that this would lead to ten different scenarios of what a perfect day would be. But the reason for the diversity in replies to this particular question is actually the same for why I would get ten different ideas for what would make my product perfect. In both cases, the definition of perfection is based not on empirical facts; instead, it’s a reflection of what we’d like to experience.

When we buy a product or service, it’s because we want it to help us solve a problem, offer us some benefit to our lives, provide us with some form of increased social status, or simply entertain us. In other words, what we gain from these products or services, as well as how we choose to use them, helps to define our perception of their value in terms of our needs or wants.

In regards to seeking perfection, what this really means is that what measures/changes we apply to make something perfect might make sense to us based on our experiences. However, the benefits of those changes will only be truly appreciated by those who share a similar experience to our own.

On the other hand, by looking at how we can make things better, our focus moves beyond just our experiences to encompass those others have had, leading to changes that more people can see the benefit and value in making.

In his book “Wind, Sand and Stars”, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote:

Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.

While we might perceive perfection as a summit that’s hard to reach, perhaps we should also view it as an ideal that’s difficult to share with others.

So what do you think – can we benefit from the pursuit of seeking perfection? Or is aiming to be better a more productive approach? As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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  1. On January 18th, 2010 at 10:03 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Ava. I'm glad you enjoyed this piece.

    I think that's an excellent point you bring up about perfection meaning that the task will never be done (love that remark "perfect is the enemy of done").

    In some ways, one could see it as being almost a crutch we lean on in dealing with uncertainty – will this idea/product/service be lauded or will it fall under great criticism? By holding out for this notion of perfection, we could rationalize that sense of fear over how our efforts will be received.

    But as you so eloquently pointed out, all this really accomplishes is delivering nothing.

    Wonderful insights, Ava. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. On January 18th, 2010 at 12:04 PM Sonia Di Maulo said:

    Hi Tanveer!

    Great food for thought. When it comes to feedback, I choose focusing on what can "make it better", "make me better", "make him/her better". As you mention perfection is subjective and impossible to achieve to make everyone happy.

    Ava's comment that "perfect is the enemy of done" is wonderful. People often sell themselves short and never even start something because of the fear of not achieving perfection. Perfection = paralysis!

    When getting ready to receive feedback, your post offers great advice. Nothing you do can ever be perfect, so get ready to receive feedback that will help you "get better"! With this mindset the perfection paralysis is lifted and you are in the perfect frame of mind to accept any and all feedback that comes your way!

    The same is true when offering feedback. The words you choose can affect how the feedback is received. Again your post offers great insight!

    What sounds better:

    A. Can I offer negative feedback?

    B. Can I offer constructive feedback?

    C. Can I offer feedback that can make it better/you better?

    I choose C!

    Great post… looking forward to more…


  3. On January 18th, 2010 at 1:00 PM Ava Diamond (@feistywoman) said:

    Great post, Tanveer. For me, perfection means it will never be done. If I work on something until it reaches some standard of perfection that no mere mortal will ever attain (which I’ve done in the past), then it never gets done.

    I remember when Lou Gerstner took over IBM–when they were exceedingly slow to respond to changes in the marketplace. In referring to their R&D lab, he said that products didn’t get released, they had to “escape.”

    In other words, striving for perfection caused them to miss the right timing for release in the market.

    I believe in creating and delivering great products and services. I believe in delivering extreme value. And I believe that perfect is the enemy of done.

  4. On January 18th, 2010 at 3:00 PM Gwyn Teatro said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    First let me say that as a recovering perfectionist I know what it is to attempt the achievement of that perfect thing, moment, day, project, job etc. only to be disappointed with the result.

    Being a little wiser now I have learned that chasing perfection is a fool's errand simply because, as you have so eloquently pointed out, perfection is subject to widespread interpretation.

    Nowadays being and/or doing BETTER seems like the more sensible pursuit. And, I don't have to beat myself up quite so much 🙂

    Thanks too for an enlightening post!


  5. On January 18th, 2010 at 4:50 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Sonia, for the kind words and the great comment.

    Perfection is one of those odd concepts in that while everyone understands what it means, how we’d describe it would vary from person to person. And as you point out, it’s difficult to be motivated to pursue a goal if despite your best efforts, it remains firmly out of reach.

    By aiming for better, though, we give ourselves a realistic goal that we can not only succeed at attaining, but which by definition would mean we’ve exceeded past our earlier accomplishment. Both of which make for strong motivators for not only pursuing the task, but also seeing it through to fruition.

    Thanks again for the great comment, Sonia, and for sharing your insights on this discussion. 🙂

  6. On January 18th, 2010 at 7:51 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Gwyn; I appreciate that.

    It’s remarkable how the pursuit of perfection can lead to not only an inability to complete anything, but also to fostering disappointments that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Makes you wonder why we’re not taught sooner the perils of seeking perfection to both our productivity and overall sense of wellness.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with this, Gwyn. 🙂

  7. On January 19th, 2010 at 8:58 AM Xurxo Vidal said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    I’m definitely going with the more productive approach of aiming to be better in smaller steps. Perfection is an all or bust concept that can be very counterproductive in that it is also very subjective like you pointed out.

    In addition, running after perfection too often leads to analysis paralysis and hardly anything gets done.

    As a very successful friend of mine used to tell me, just do it, get your project going even if you make tons of mistakes along the way. Just make sure to keep making improvements and learning from your experiences. Success doesn’t come from having the perfect idea – it comes from taking action, testing and adapting.

  8. On January 19th, 2010 at 11:05 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Xurxo. And here’s the wonderful irony – one of the reasons we become wary of making mistakes is because it only goes to show our imperfections. So not only does seeking perfection lead to an inability to actually complete something, it also makes us fearful of exposing ourselves to gaining new insights into aspects we hadn’t considered.

    Of course, as you pointed out, the benefit of making mistakes comes only if we’re willing to review what went wrong and adjust our approach accordingly as we resume moving ahead.

    Some great points, Xurxo. Thanks for bringing them to the discussion. 🙂

  9. On December 10th, 2011 at 12:26 PM Loc said:

    I’m a programmer and I blog just as a hobby. In the beginning, I would program an application, I made it perfect, how they could improve their productivity. My client thought it was a great idea but end up getting me to modify it to their specification. Like you said Tanveer, what is perfect for me is not necessarily perfect for someone else because we are all different and we all have different needs.

    Now, after creating a rough draft, I would show my work to my client, if she approves I would continue. This saves a lot of time. Besides, there’s no such thing as perfection. There’s always flaws in everything or things that needs some improvement on.

  10. On December 10th, 2011 at 12:52 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely; that's the inherent flaw in seeking perfection. Not only does it give us the excuse to hold back on putting out a product/service, but if we convince ourselves that our offering is perfect, we take away that curiosity to see what we could do to make it better in the next iteration.

    Focusing on better also allows us to open ourselves to gaining new insights from learning how others use/apply our offerings so we can build on what we know instead of simply relying on past accomplishments.

    Thanks Loc for sharing your example. It really helps to reinforce why going for better beats aiming for perfection.

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