Perfect or adequate

Some things I don’t do because, while I can produce perfectly adequate results, my results are not world-changing. I may enjoy the process of getting there, but not enough to overcome the feeling when I look at the result: yes, that’s okay, but it’s not stunning. I enjoyed drawing and painting in school and I’m better at these than the average person. I know enough about art, though, and what I think are masterpieces, to see the difference – and I don’t like that my art doesn’t measure up. So I don’t, as an adult, draw or paint or sculpt, even though if you ask me, I would say that I think I would enjoy doing so.

Some things I do although my results are only adequate.

I ride my horse at a thoroughly adequate level, in that we don’t run down babies in strollers, but we aren’t doing fancy dressage moves or jumping intricate courses. I am briefly jealous when I see really talented horses and riders, think about taking lessons, then never do because I enjoy the riding itself so much that it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m the best at it.

I speak German fluently. I don’t speak it perfectly, and I never will. As a person who is nauseatingly good at spelling in English and very grammar-aware, the mental work involved in getting over myself and accepting my flawed German was immense. But I live in Germany, and I cannot not speak German.

Aside: The results of riding or speaking German aren't tangible. If I'm producing art or knitting, I have to do something with the results! This is a factor, as my parents tended towards hoarding and I have some issues around objects and the acquisition or disposal thereof.

At work, I don’t always have a choice about whether I can do the tasks I am really good at or the tasks I am perfectly adequate at. Or I have time constraints and must produce a result that is just fine, but not as polished and perfect as I would like. The reality is that almost all of the time, “just fine” really is just fine. The trick is to calibrate expectations and accept tradeoffs.

Does this mean that you should work less well? If you’re a perfectionist, maybe you should.

My keywords are “efficient” and “optimize”. These sound quite similar but when I think about efficiency, I think about how not to do something, and when I think about optimizing I think in terms of changing processes in order to waste less time.

It is not efficient to spend half a day rewriting something that already works just fine, but maybe isn’t as fast as it could be. It is not efficient to reinvent the wheel every time you start a project instead of using some sort of bootstrap or framework. It is not efficient to spend an hour in a meeting that could have been an email.

I can optimize my time by scheduling my meetings around my lunch hour, so that I have time in the afternoons for dedicated focus work. I can optimize projects by investing more time in planning before we even start. I can optimize my results by asking for help when I’m stuck instead of spending more than half an hour trying to unstick myself alone.

Aside: Sometimes I find myself drinking coffee while I shower, and then I have to accept that I've over-optimized and back it off a bit. 


  1. Jim Grey

    I totally get you about coffee in the shower. I’ve had the exact same “whoa, back it off a notch” conversation with myself many times.

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