Do you want to do things perfectly?
I do. Striving for perfection is what high achievers do. The good is the enemy of the perfect: high achievers are never satisfied with what they’ve done. No matter how good they get, they are constantly searching for ways to get better. The Japanese call this kaizen— “continuous improvement.”
As legendary basketball coach John Wooden put it, it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.
But more commonly, it is said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is also true. How so?
Because the secret to kaizen is short cycles of full-throated effort, followed by feedback and reflection, followed by an adjustment, leading to another round, and another, and another. In each cycle, you try your very best to reach perfection. You do as well as you possibly can before the clock runs out. You scan your email for typos before you send it, you think and rethink your strategy before you pitch it, you do whatever you can to save the time of your colleagues and, of course, your manager.
Then you submit your shitty first draft and prepare yourself for feedback, knowing that upon reflection the imperfections of your work will seem embarrassing and obvious, that you will curse yourself under your breath for making such foolish errors.
And then you will try again. This cycle, repeated over and over again, is what sociologist Dan Chambliss calls the mundanity of excellence and what psychologist Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice.
The key to kaizen is becoming a short-cycle perfectionist. That means doing work as close to perfect as you can get it, knowing that the clock is ticking and, sooner than feels comfortable, having the courage to hand it over to others, knowing that if you’d spent more time, you’d have done an even better job.
Too often, I’ve seen people get kaizen wrong in two different ways.
The long-cycle perfectionist waits too long to show their work to others. They sacrifice pace for polish. For example, I’ve watched graduate students in our department spend weeks or even months on a manuscript before showing their advisor. I myself have procrastinated on an email to a board member, or a revision of a chapter for my book editor, or an attempt at a study design, for far too long.
The short-cycle slob, on the other hand, is too hasty. They say, when handing over work, “This has a bunch of typos in it. Just ignore those.” They don’t put in full effort. They waste other people’s time making the improvements that they could easily have done themselves.
Which are you?
My guess is that you are, at one time or another, all three. But which would you like to be more, and which would you like to be less?
If you do your best on a project only to have your manager point out errors or areas to improve, don’t sulk. Don’t berate yourself. Assuming this was the very best work you could do in a very short cycle, be proud that you got your as-perfect-as-possible shitty draft done, so that the “next time try” feedback can come swiftly and often, so that can move in the direction of perfection faster than in any other way.
The good is the enemy of the perfect—never be satisfied. And the perfect is the enemy of the good—don’t dither. Strive for perfection, iteratively.
About the Author
Angela Duckworth is the Founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development. She is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book, "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," debuted May 3, 2016 as an immediate New York Times bestseller.
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