There’s a saying I’ve heard countless times, some variation of, “Don’t Let ‘Perfect’ Be the Enemy of ‘Good.’” (Here’s an example.) I like it, because aiming for perfection is the surest way to a creative block and paralysis by analysis. Aiming for good is a great rallying call to actually get things done—to aim for acceptable and allow perfection to emerge naturally.
It’s a great mantra in the professional realm. The problem still emerges when an ill-defined “Good” becomes some version of the new perfect. Sometimes, a person’s or team’s capabilities just aren’t at the place where they can make something good yet. The relationships, chemistry, and balances in talent aren’t there, and aiming for “Good” at the first swing isn’t even possible yet. “Good” ideas end up being scarce, a “Good” plan is non-existent, and morale ends up really really far away from “Good.”
We probably hope that our expectations of making something “Good” will turn into an actuality, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s not going to happen though. For every group of people who deal with the pressure to meet this unrealistic expectation, there are dozens that struggle. People are fearful because they know they won’t make something “Good” with the time and resources given.
Things may start off “Bad” at the beginning
The natural principle here is not to aim for “Perfect” or “Good,” but always to lower standards at the beginning—even aiming for “Bad,” to start with. Perfect things come from good things, and good things come from bad things. I’m definitely not saying to go all in on a bad idea—however, it’s very possible that a good idea could emerge from putting forward 100 bad ideas. (Rather it’s just unlikely that anyone can make 100 bad ideas without 1 of them being accidentally good.)
Sometimes—and I daresay, a lot of times—“Good” things start out “Bad.” A “Good” feature emerges from a really terrible product. A “Good” opportunity for skill development emerges from a really “Bad” attempt at a project. A “Good” book emerges from a “Bad” initial draft.
Doing something “Bad” frees you up to do something “Good”
Also, knowing when to slack off and ship “Bad” work is another skill altogether, because that frees up your energy to do “Good” work—or even to focus on trying to make something “Perfect.” That’s a whole other topic altogether, one that startup advisor Shreyas Doshi does a great job explaining. (When he realizes a task is unimportant and will not make an impact, and he still can’t put it off, he deliberately decides to do it badly, watching TV in the background.)
Doing something “Bad” can be an awful experience and lead to a complete dead end. Sure. More often than not though, I’ve found that taking it one step further—treating it like the preparation phase of a creative process—can squeeze the most out of an otherwise painful, and fruitless, experience. Thinking about it, getting feedback, looking for a next step, or deciding that you’re better off doing something else—all “Good” results from a “Bad” project.
“Bad” can be the first step to “Good”
There’s a popular—and controversial—saying in software development, “Worse is better.” This post is not a call to make something “Bad” on purpose or to ship incomplete work. It is another way of phrasing Anne Lamott’s powerful writing advice, to give yourself permission to write shitty first drafts. Permission to make something “Bad” is the first step to being more creative. “Bad” isn’t the enemy of “good,” it’s merely the first step to making something good.
If we decide to take that more forgiving approach to “Bad” work, we can start looking at every piece of work as a first draft, as DJ Dahi recommended to me in an interview.
“Good” and “Bad” are not always diametrically opposed. “Bad” is often how projects start. We don’t need to pretend otherwise. “Good” is how projects appear when they are closer to complete, if we stay present when we make it. And if we’re lucky, “Perfect,” takes place when we make something “Good” and it matches up with timing and support. But “Perfect” is not in our control.
Once we decide to let go of “Perfect” and our fears of making something “Bad,” our expectations fall behind and we’re free to focus what’s in front of us: the actual work itself.