Is perfection the enemy?

Many people argue that the pursuit of perfection is akin to paralysis by analysis.
Or increasing effort resulting in diminishing returns.
And what aphorism do they invariably cite to prop up their argument?
“Perfection is the enemy of the good.”
It certainly sounds valid.
Like some sort of universal truth.
But what is that truth?
What’s the real meaning behind those seven, oft-quoted words?
Ironically a Google search attributes the exact phrase to the 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert.
A perfectionist known for agonizing over the fine-grain of his writing (he took five years to write Madame Bovary).
The quote is more likely taken from the French “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”
Literally translated as “The best is the enemy of good.”
It was written almost a century earlier by Voltaire in his poem, La Bégueule (The Prudes).
Here’s the phrase in context:

In his writings, a wise Italian
Said that the best is the enemy of the good;
No one can grow in prudence,
In goodness of heart, talent, science;
Look for the best of these chapters there;
Elsewhere avoid the chimera.
As it stands, happy that can be pleasing,
Living in his place, and keep what he has!

It appears that all the talk about accepting “good enough” misses the author’s point.
In fact, it inverts it!
Voltaire’s “good” is prudence, the status quo.
His “best” is a pursuit of excellence that threatens that good.
They are enemies intent on snuffing the other out.
People, and by extension society, can not grow by being cautious and judicious.
By being overly concerned with preserving their standing.
Instead, they must remain hostile to the social order.
They must strive for greatness in their hearts and in their work.
Our world is advanced by those who dare to struggle for perfection.
The rebels and provocateurs who help change our lives from what it is to what they believe it should be.
Flaubert did write, “Be regular in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
So when it comes to “living in your place,” avoid the hollow belief that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.
But when it comes to your work and your community, ignore the merely good.
Instead, be an enemy of the ordinary.
And when times get tough, which they invariably will for passionate souls driven to change things, take a deep breathe.
Then close your eyes, smile and recite this childhood mantra:
“Good, better, best, never let it rest,
‘Till your good is better, and your better’s best.”

Tom Asacker