Perfect is the Enemy of the Good (or Great)

There’ve been countless posts on how trying to make something perfect usually ends up not only with nothing perfect, but often with nothing at all. In my limited experience, this “common sense” is not so common. I love when this precept is illustrated so plainly:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

“A pile of dead clay.” I think I’m gonna put it on t-shirts. [thx kottke]

5 Responses to Perfect is the Enemy of the Good (or Great)

  1. Kat says:

    I have thrown many, many pots and can confirm this story is true. It is a continual lesson you are reminded of when faced with that “pile of dead clay”. When you throw a pot, there becomes a critical point where the clay becomes too wet. During the process, most early students continue adding water while carefully spinning and making just a few more improvements… I have seen hundreds of vessels lost to final and desperate tweaks. Beautiful and perfectly functional work becomes simply a blob of wet dirt.

    Great post!

  2. laurent says:

    what a brilliant simple example – and what a great reminder for all of us. thx

  3. Andrew says:

    Fundamentally people learn by doing. The Scientific American article “The Expert Mind” (http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-expert-mind) is a fascinating look at what it takes to become an expert. It has nothing to do with a “gift” or anything like that but instead people become experts by continually attempting tasks that are just outside of their reach.

  4. Aaron says:

    Great little story. So, so, true… I find myself saying ‘execution trumps idealism’ or ‘trumps perfection’ very, very often…

  5. So true and applicable in most businesses. I’ve heard Merlin Mann say this many times and there is a great Seth Godin video on Merlin’s site kungfugrippe . com where Seth talks about the need to ship product! When you run out of time or out of budget: SHIP IT!

    Successful businesses ship product and iterate. Basically: start, finish, and get better. Being a perfectionist is a hinderance if it stops you from ever being done.

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