The best is the enemy of the good—Voltaire(ish)

This aphorism, translated from French, is attributed to Voltaire who actually attributed it to “A wise Italian” in a long satirical poem about a beautiful and pampered woman who takes a lover because she’s bored. It’s also been translated as “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”

A friend finds this quote mildly offensive because it seems to endorse mediocrity.

I see her point. “Good” doesn’t exactly sound like high praise.

“How was the movie?”

“It was good.”

“How’s your dinner?”

“It’s good.”

“Great!” and “delicious!” sound much better. (With exclamation points, of course.)

In part, what we have here is adjective inflation. When so many things are “amazing” and “awesome,” plain old “good” sounds awfully meh.

But in the case of this quote, the opposite of “good” is nothing at all. Because that’s what we are most likely to get when we fixate on perfection. Perfection is unattainable. It’s an illusion. If we decide “perfect or nothing,” it’s an obstacle. If we insist on perfect, we devalue good.

A quest for perfection sounds admirable. I get that. But a goal of perfection can be crippling. It’s writer’s block, loneliness, projects that never get off the ground. It’s procrastination, disappointment, self loathing. It’s a delusion that makes good sound bad and can make effort seem futile and foolish. If you can’t do it perfectly, why bother at all?

It’s also deprivation—abandoning concrete good for the fantasy of perfection.

Perfection is a crock.

Is objective perfection attainable? I don’t think so. I don’t think it even exists. It’s an ideal, not real.

Aim for perfect and you are guaranteed to fall short, and this certain failure is an impediment to trying.  Aim for good and if you overshoot, you might reach great. 

And great is pretty damn good.

Photo by Shelby H via Flickr (Creative Commons)