Better Is Better Than Best

I've previously discussed the concept that "progress works backwards", meaning that growth toward a desired goal generally happens in incrementally improving stages. I find a lot of hope in the idea that what initially seems like "failure" is more productively viewed as useful feedback on the path to ultimate success. A related philosophy is the idea that "better is often better than best". This may initially seem to be a confusing and contradictory statement, but the idea is actually both simple and comforting.

In the book "Stumbling Toward Enlightenment" Geri Larkin wrote that "It's never a straight line." Any sustained endeavor is going to have its ups and downs. Setbacks are almost always a byproduct when pursuing any worthwhile goal. People who attend 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are familiar with the value of "progress, not perfection".

A major problem with perfectionism is that it can increase the possibility of procrastination, which halts all effort toward improvement. People who seek to do something perfectly often get discouraged and quit making any effort once they fall off the mark. When the only two choices in any endeavor are perfection or failure, anxiety can keep anything from happening. It's helpful to remember the phrase that "A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow."

Some goals are really ideals, which may inspire people but are impossible to fully attain. Across the course of history sailors navigated across vast oceans by using the North Star as a constant reference point. It helped to guide their journey, but it can never be a destination. Similarly, the goal of absolute perfection can never be reached, even though it can be useful in setting and maintaining a course of action.

I've previously written that relatively minor improvements often result in remarkable positive changes. The inverse is also true: past a certain level of improvement any continued effort is going to result in smaller and smaller gains. This is referred to as the law of diminishing returns.

There's a popular saying in business that "the good is the enemy of the great." This is often used to justify ever-increasing demands toward perfection. It implies that people or organizations that settle for 'mere adequacy' are inherently failing by not achieving a greater goal. Anything short of perfection can never be more than mediocre. What an impossible standard!

The irony is that this saying is really a mistranslation of the French philosopher Voltaire, who actually wrote that "the perfect is the enemy of the good". Rather than claiming the "good" is inherently inferior to the "perfect", Voltaire was warning that the quest for perfection carries its own demons. This causes me to think of an old friend who once told me "My old car can get me to most of the same places a Mercedes goes -- and for a lot cheaper."  I think he's going to live a long and happy life.

I'm also reminded of the saying that sometimes "less is more." Rather than attempting to do too much, a certain simplicity of action is often a sign of wisdom and quiet power. This is similar to the concept of "addition by subtraction", meaning that it is often better to reduce or eliminate negative qualities rather than trying to pile on more positive ones. For example, if an apple in a bag is no good, it makes more sense to simply remove it than to search for the elusive "perfect" bag. Similarly, it is often far more efficient to reduce whatever distracts you from a goal instead of getting frustrated and exhausted by "trying harder".

I've also come across the somewhat related idea that sometimes "worse is better". This simply means that dismantling something is often necessary before putting it back together in a more improved form. A person experiencing active withdrawal from a drug addiction, for example, is going to temporarily feel worse to the exact measure that he or she is actually getting better. I recently saw a brief video where Abraham Twerski uses a fact about lobsters to talk about the value of discomfort as a necessary condition for growth. 

One of my favorite books is "The Spirituality of Imperfection", in which the author brilliantly demonstrates the benefit of recognizing and accepting the reality that we are very imperfect beings. People tend to show their "best side" to each other, but this unfortunately can lead each person to feel either inferior or superior to the other due to "comparing your inside with other peoples' outside." The better goal is to show our imperfections rather than striving to display some imagined ideal way of living that can never be reached.

In conclusion, I'm not proposing that excellence is a bad thing. For example, I take great satisfaction in providing a consistent degree of excellence in my Atlanta counseling and psychotherapy practice. My goal here is simply to introduce some useful ideas for balancing the desire to achieve perfection with a proper regard for the potential costs involved. To once again borrow from the wisdom of 12-step groups, often the sanest and ultimately "best" course of action can be summed up in three simple words:

"Easy Does It!"


Bill Herring LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta psychotherapist who helps individuals and couples heal and grow.  He also is well regarded for his way of helping people struggling with sexual behavior that is outside of their commitments, values or self-control.