The Perfect Route Toward Perfectionism

You’re never going to be perfect. It’s very unlikely you’ll ever deliver a perfect piece of work. You won’t have a perfect life. We don’t live in a perfect world.

For these and other reasons, there’s a lot of advice out there – my own included – telling you to give up on perfectionism in both your work and your life.

But here’s a twist I recently discovered: striving for what’s perfect can actually be helpful, provided you’re willing – if, as, and when appropriate – to take less. In my experience, sometimes it’s perfectly smart to “Shoot for the Moon, then take what you can get.”

Here are some guidelines to help you understand when to accept this compromise:

Focus on Essentials

“Shooting for the Moon” on a task, project, or goal normally involves trying to provide the best possible deliverable(s). But as you encounter various problems and delays, face cost overruns, and discover intricacies and complications you never anticipated, it’s no disgrace to recognize that perfection is out of reach.

This is a good time to dial back on the complexity and/or completeness of what you’re trying to deliver. Maybe it won’t be all things to all people, as you originally hoped. But it can still succeed as one or more important things to certain people. Not perfect, but good enough.

Delivering only essentials is often sufficient to make your effort worthwhile.

Accept the Best Others Can Give

Larger tasks, projects, and goals that require team – rather than solo – efforts generally force you to rely on other people’s contributions. If you build or find the right team, their best efforts may sometimes be even better that your own. But if they’re not, you can step back from perfectionism by rethinking, reworking, or re-strategizing the task, project, or goal so others’ contributions will still be adequate to produce a winner.

Accept Shortcuts

There are often at least three ways to get something done: the right way, the wrong way, and the shortcut. While you’re “shooting for the Moon,” you’ll naturally want to do everything the right way. But when time, resources, opportunities, and possibilities begin to dry up, you can often avoid doing things the wrong way by finding a less-than-perfect but serviceable shortcut. This can be:

  • An approximation that’s close enough to the right way,
  • A standardized solution that works almost as well as a unique one,
  • A “quick and dirty” method that yields “good enough” results for now, or
  • A “mock up,” “rough,” or “demonstration” version of the final result you seek.

I remember one year in the Tour de France bicycle race, on a downhill mountain road laid out in a series of sharp switchbacks, the leader encountered a sudden, significant blockage. Rather than stop and wait for it to clear, he spontaneously rode across the grass and dirt toward clear pavement further down the mountain. Under extremely adverse conditions, his literal shortcut helped him successfully maintain his lead.

A shortcut is not always available, of course. But if you can find one when your hoped-for “perfect” conditions disappear, you can often make helpful progress on your task, project, or goal.

Lower Standards

People who strive for perfection are understandably reluctant to lower their standards. They desperately want to deliver the best. But sometimes the only way forward is undesirable.

I remember a time on a cross-country drive when I came to a town where I could not obtain the “premium” grade of gasoline the car required. Reluctantly, I put in some lower grade gas. It was less-than-perfect, but I was able to continue my journey and get to my destination on time.

In the same vein, I know a photographer who went to a remote location for an important shoot and found the studio lights inadequate. Faced with the choice of dim lighting or no photographs, he did the best he could with the less-than-perfect equipment available.

Lowering your standards is never a preferred option. But when it’s the only way forward, you’ve encountered another appropriate time to give up your thirst for perfection.  

Ship Something Useful

The general idea here is to do the best you can in unfavorable circumstances. Perfectionism can be useful, but only as a direction, not as a goal. If it limits you to building half a bridge or running out of fuel before you get home, perfectionism may actually be hindrance.

In other words, it’s fine – even admirable – to “shoot for the Moon” when you start a task, project, or goal, provided you remain willing to “take what you can get” in order to finish.

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