Perfection vs Pareto: Achieving Balance on the Edge of Occam’s Razor

(EDITORIAL NOTE: I have been working on this blog post for over a month and just publishing now…perfectionism or procrastination?)

I have had an interesting realtionship with “perfectionism” all my life. I could use any number of examples here, but I think this story illustrates it well enough. (Hmmmm…interesting how I worded that…you’ll see why below.)

I was at a workshop. The assigned task was to break a board. By punching it. This was an exercise in overcoming challenges and facing fear.

We were given our boards: foot-long 1″ pine. The first step was to draw a dot in the middle of the board to act as a target, and on flip side we wrote what we wanted to overcome in ourselves. Mine was “I am not good enough“.

David Carradine, Kung FuLet me mention here that I have always been interested in martial arts – inspired by comic books and David Carradine, I’m sure. I also have never been a very athletic person. (Yes, I work out and do yoga now, but those are recent developments.) So punching through a board is something I have contemplated but definitely never had the guts to try.

So…back to the workshop…waivers are signed and the board (my new worst enemy) is being held by my teammates, ready for me to punch “right through it” as instructed. I am nervous as hell. Maybe about hurting my hand or wrist, but mostly about “can I do this”? Also, I was nervous that others were watching me; potentially judging me. (“What if I can’t do it? What will they think? Everybody else is doing, it even little old men and women!”)

The first punch was a bit wild. I was tense and I just fell short of the wood.

The second try, I was even more nervous. Judging myself as not good enough. This time I connected with the wood, but my angle and power weren’t right. I glanced off with the side of my hand, and my opponent, the board, was unphased and unbroken. It hurt my hand a little, I remember that. It made me want to quit. But of course the perceived shame of quitting was even more than the fear of going on. (For the record, the breaking of the board wasn’t actually that difficult. It was our “stories” about it or ourselves that made it hard.)

Third time lucky, as my Granny used to say.

This time I managed to connect well enough, with my knuckles, and the board split. As prescribed, my team cheered and clapped me on the back. We celebrated for a minute and made our way back to our seats.

That’s all very interesting I’m sure, but now to my point about perfectionism….Testimonials

As the facilitator started to debrief the exercise, I looked down at my board. My elation and excitement deflated. Remember the dot we drew in the middle of the board as a target? Well the break in the board didn’t align with that dot. It was well off centre. It sounds silly now, I know, because I overcame my fears and doubts and broke the damn board, but at that time in my life I was very self-critical and judgemental. I truly felt disappointed that I had done “good enough”.

Of course, then I turned the board over, and read “I am not good enough” and the lights in my head came on. What is “good enough”, really?

I had noticed the debilitating effects of “perfectionism” in others, but I hadn’t really realized that I was also a victim of this nasty habit. In that moment it became very clear. I broke the board. It was very difficult. But I did it. Yet here I am criticizing myself for not breaking it exactly in the centre!

So I have been working hard on being “good enough”. Yes, I set high standards for myself, my work, and the people around me. That’s okay. I want to feel proud of what I do and who I am. What’s not okay though, are the times when I judge myself or others as not good enough when we fall short of perfection.

This is something I’m still working, and probably will be for life, but I am far more cable of saying “good enough” when I know it could be better, and accepting people – even myself – as just fine even though we are only human and far from perfect.

I read a relevant phrase last night; something like “it wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t improvable either“.

So I keep the Pareto Principle in mind; the 80/20 rule. Getting to 80% of perfect is pretty easy, but that last 20% is really hard, and of course impossible to be perfectly perfect. Hence the idea of “not improvable”. By all intents and practical purposes, good enough is as good as it gets and trying force it further is frustrating and demoralizing and a waste of my valuable time.

I believe that, just like breaking the board, getting the task done is the main thing, and it will never be perfect. I want to applaud my perseverance and results. I am working on being proud of results that are absolutely “good enough” and knowing that that “good enough” is the most pragmatic way to do anything.

All the best, and I welcome your comments.

P.S. Did you notice February 2015 was a perfect month? 🙂