Today a man told me about a wedding he attended. All the kids got up and danced badly, and had tremendous fun doing it. But he stayed seated, because he was a trained dancer who’d been highly rewarded for his advanced skill, and he was unwilling to dance badly. And he was miserable.
I grew up in a household ruled by a perfectionist, which is no small trauma. As a result, I ardently desired not to be a perfectionist, became one anyway, and put a lot of energy into figuring out how to change that. The key (for me) turned out to be not to fight perfectionism, but to embrace and appreciate a middle way: pragmatism. It’s hugely liberating and has taught me to be much more effective, and to find joy in so many things I didn’t before.
In my family of origin, the atmosphere could be described by the following phrases,1 which were not infrequently visited upon us:
- Do it right the first time so you don’t have to do it again.
- If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
- If you can’t do it right, don’t even bother doing it at all.
- Get out of the way and let me do it.
A related phrase that I’ve heard more than once in my life, but not from my family of origin, was: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
There’s truth in that phrase, but I’ve found it even more useful to flip it around: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Now there’s a concept!
But it turns out to be far from a flippant dismissal of perfectionism. It turns out to contain within itself the kernels of deeper wisdom, despite the shallow exterior. It turns out to be true.
Literally: anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Like dancing at a wedding, for example. If there’s good in doing it absolutely perfectly, there must also be good in doing it otherwise.
To me, the statement invites an examination—which leads swiftly to rejection—of the notions of perfect, good, and bad. What does it mean to dance “badly?” At a wedding, the only bad dancing is dancing that doesn’t bring happiness.
And who gets to judge good, bad, and perfect? I’ll tell you who doesn’t want to: me. Because setting myself up as the judge has always brought me misery. That’s because to judge is to mantle oneself with self-bestowed power and authority without consent from others. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that perfectionism is a fear that the universe is a hostile place, which feels like it begs for the cocoon of perfect defenses. Otherwise it seems like an obviously bad idea.
A little inspection swiftly dismantles each of the angry sayings I grew up hearing. Do it right the first time? What the hell is “right” anyway?
Do it right the first time? How are you supposed to learn and improve if you can’t figure out a way to try repeatedly? If there’s only one try, you haven’t set the problem up very well.
Do it right the first time, so you don’t have to do it again? Who says a redo is a bad thing? When I’m finished with chewing gum, I wrap it in the paper and loft it towards the waste basket. If I sink it in, I have maximized my productivity and fun. If I miss, I go pick it up and put it in, which is not more work than doing it “right” the first time, so on average I come out ahead.
In the domain of software development, of course, the Agile philosophy of doing things in small, partial increments, and doing the Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work, require the avoidance of perfectionism. If you have to get it right the first time, you end up with Big Design Up Front,2 which creates all the problems the Agile mindset emerged to solve.
Not incidentally, doing things “badly” isn’t the opposite of perfectionism. Perfectionism isn’t a spectrum with good on one end and bad on the other. The notion of a linear spectrum doesn’t even make sense in this context when you think about it more.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly, too. Perhaps surprisingly, but entirely logically, it turns out that anything worth doing is worth doing. Give yourself permission to learn, to improve, to iterate, to find Pareto-optimal, to call it good enough and move on, and most of all do it with joy.
- There are other phrases that are probably more common in the public sphere, but express a related sentiment: Measure twice, cut once. Slow down to speed up. Haste maketh waste. These are valid too, but much more benign. [return]
- I know there are domains where correctness and diligence is essential, which has never been an argument against Agile, and has been thoroughly addressed elsewhere. [return]