Perfect vs. Good vs. Great

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” – Arabic Proverb

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” – Klingon Proverb

We spit out platitudes and quips like these all of the time; it’s easier than coming up with something on the fly. Someone, somewhere, has said something so succinct that it’s been passed down as the exact set of words needed to convey a certain situation. In the end though, it’s just one step above quipping “I know kung-fu” in your best Keanu Reeves deadpan. Totally.

There are two conflicting quotations that I often tangle with in my head, and this post is an attempt to pull them apart and perhaps reconstruct them into something less confusing. Brain, that sly bastard, likes to entwine these two, setting the roots of one into the other so that they cannot be torn asunder. Here they are:

  • Perfect is the enemy of good.
  • Good is the enemy of great.

They both serve different purposes: the first is supposed to be a cautionary tale against perfectionism, while the second is supposed to be a quote about not settling for just good enough. The positioning of “good” in the middle of both of these, though, is where Brain starts to fuck with me. It’s setting up some kind of 1984, Orwellian, “We have always been at war with Eurasia” rhetoric that I can’t think myself out of.

I suffer from perfectionism – I get frozen in place doing things (writing papers, practicing bassoon, making reeds), because I don’t think I’m able to do them perfectly. If I can’t do it amazingly the first time, why bother? Right now, I’m sitting on a presentation for a talk I’m doing on Saturday morning, because I don’t think I could make one that lives up to whatever non-existent, yet stupidly high standards I’ve set for these sorts of things. By not labeling my standards, and thereby setting them out of reach every time, I can never succeed. I’ve basically set myself up to fail from the first step.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

It seems reasonable – if I try to do something perfectly, I’ll never accomplish it. I’ll just sit on it until I can’t, slap something piss poor together, and hey, whatever people judge me on, it won’t be my best work. That’s ok, because if they judge me poorly, I can say, “What the fuck do they know? They haven’t seen what I can really do.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure what I can really do either. I can probably count on one hand the amount of things I’ve done in the past few years that were truly all out, balls to the wall efforts, instead of just creeping by, doing things half-assed and at the last minute in an effort to save whatever ego I may be shielding, like a parent covering their child’s eyes during the naughty bits of a movie.

This may be fucked up enough as it is – but wait, it gets better.

Good is the enemy of great.

Good is now the bad guy, like the wrestler that was once the good guy but now wears black and red, so he’s totally bad. Good is the evil that screws up greatness. I can’t settle for being good, because if I do, I’ll never be great. Great is the end point; we all want to be great. No one strives for mediocrity. Good is the false grail; good is a trap.

This is where Brain becomes a real bastard. Hey, he say, your perfectionism makes total sense. If you’re just good, you’ll never be great. You’ll always settle for good, and you’ll never put out anything great. So, see, what you had originally makes sense. If you can’t be perfect, you’ll be good, and if you’re good, you’ll never be great.

Brain and I should have taken a logic class during undergrad.

If I am for just good enough, I’ll never be great. But if I keep getting caught up in the trap of perfectionism, I’ll never be good. It’s this kind of circular thinking that keeps me trapped in the void of doing nothing. I’m in Limbo, next to Homer, Ovid, and Aristotle, and they just keep shrugging their shoulders at me, then go back to their non-suffering suffering.

Is my enemy perfect or good? If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, whose side do I fall on? I know that, practically, I should take the quotes in order – overcome my perfectionism first, and then deal with overcoming mediocrity. Unfortunately, taking things in order isn’t really my strong suit. I’m the dude that ends up with 4 spare parts when he assembles his IKEA Eyjafjallajökull, and then wonders why it collapsed into a pile of rubble two weeks later.

Where am I at? Am I good, failing at being great, or am I attempting to be perfect, failing at being good at all? Is the first step to be eschew perfectionism in an attempt to make the first step towards good, or do I have to avoid that trap in order to be great?

If you figure it out, let me know. I’ll be chilling with Aristotle till you get back.

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One Response to Perfect vs. Good vs. Great

  1. Pingback: Perfect, a cautionary tale « Jeff Namnum

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