Perfect! The biggest roadblock to better

In the summer of 2012, while attending a Blue Economy summer school, I heard Gunter Pauli utter the quote: ‘Don’t let perfect stand in the way of better‘. It’s that quote that eventually led to this post.

We’ve all encountered it multiple times in our lives. We have some great idea to solve an existing problem and one of the first things we are confronted with are the words ‘Yes, but …’ The chance of these words popping up increases with the magnitude of the problem we want to solve. If we come up with a solution to make sure the garbage is put out on time, the likelihood of our idea being squashed by them is fairly small. If we come up with a solution for our world problems it’s about 99.99999%.

The impact of ‘but’ is enormous. Imagine your partner, mother, child or anyone you dearly love telling you: I love you but …

But kills everything that comes before it. You’ve done a great job but …. That’s a fantastic idea but … This was the best year ever but …

‘But’ shines a light on what comes after it and when we start with something positive, what follows, and will thus be put in the limelight, is something negative. Leaving us with a defeated feeling. Why do we do this? Especially in the context of progress, where we are trying to find new solutions for existing problems. Why do we kill new ideas so often? And in the process discourage people to come up with others?

I think it has to do with the wiring in our brain. We react stronger to perceived danger than to niceties. And everything new holds potential danger and we want to feel safe. Nothing wrong with being cautious, we are just taking cautious way to far in some cases. This is where perfect stands in the way of better.

Every time someone comes up with a radically new idea, most of us will immediately start scanning for the holes, the flaws, where it might go wrong. And based on that we dismiss the idea without even considering what it could bring us, how it could make the situation better than the current one. Not perfect, better.

Take basic income for example. The questions that most people ask are: Where do we get the money? Wouldn’t people stop working? Who will be doing the shitty jobs? The first questions are never: What would it bring us? What would the positive impact on society be? How will it make the world a better place? Will it save us money in the long run? What almost everyone is asking is: will it be a perfect system? The answer is: no, it will be a better system. New problems will arise and we will have to deal with them but the overal situation will improve. There have been numerous trial projects to support this.

Ponder this for a while. If you could change jobs tomorrow, what would be the most important thing? That the job is perfect or that the job is better? We can ask ourselves the same question for a new car, a new house, a new partner, a new gym, …

Another reason why I think we have a tendency to shower new ideas with destructive critique is because perfect is easier to define than better. Perfect is easy, it’s simply the situation where no defect can be found. Case closed. Better is a tougher cookie. What is better for one might not be better for the other. And it is harder to balance the new benefits against the potential new problems. It requires more work to find ‘better’ than it is to poke holes in ‘perfect’.

So how can we tackle this problem? The first step it to become conscious of our own behaviour. Ask yourself the questions: Do I have a tendency to shoot down new ideas with a ‘yes, but’? Do I think in possibilities or impossibilities? These are very confronting questions and they are not easy to answer. Almost all of us want to answer this with: of course I don’t shoot down new ideas and of course I think in possibilities. Often, we all do the opposite though. I’ve been giving training in creative thinking for years and I teach people to postpone their judgement and be open for new ideas and I still catch myself shooting down ideas. It’s not about being perfect in being open to new ideas, it’s about getting better at it.

The next step is to be constructively curious. Once we open up to the idea that something new, something unknown might bring us something better we can start to look for what that better might be. Explore the possibilities without, temporarily, focusing on the downsides and the problems.

Take self driving cars for example. Let’s start with the possibilities first. They will allow us to read, sleep or get some work done during our commute. We will never have to worry about parking it because it parks itself. It will allow easier car sharing because the car can go to where it’s needed. The computer driving it doesn’t get distracted, tired or drunk and it has 360 degree vision. All these cars can communicate with each other so that they can ease the traffic flow based on their itineraries and current road conditions. And there are many more. Now let’s pit this list against the question that usually gets asked first: what if the system fails? Constructive curiosity leads us to the questions: What is the chance the system fails? And: Does it fail more or less often than human driven cars?

This approach paints a different mental picture than when we start with the question: but what is the system fails? Say we can reduce deadly accidents by 10%, would that be perfect? Not by far. Would it be better? Very much so! As an aside, up to now Google’s tests with self driving cars ran into 1 accident, this was when a human was driving it.

Once we established whether a new approach would be better, we can then start tackling the problems. In the case of the self driving car we want to decrease the chance of failure. The other thing we need to solve is what happens when things do go wrong. Ponder this question: could we somehow eliminate the blame aspect, thereby making dealing with the situation easier? It would turn into a solution oriented process rather than a blame oriented process.

We need to shift to ‘better’ thinking as a society because perfect is standing in the way of a lot of necessary changes. These include solving climate change, poverty, energy use, food supply, water supply and many others.

Where do you let perfect get in the way of better?

Also published on Medium.

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  1. Thank you, Stef. Fabulous. There’s a nice book that supports your thinking about our tendency toward negative default thinking called “Hardwiring Happiness” by Rick Hanson. The basic principles have been in play in mindfulness living and meditation for thousands of years but now we in the West are beginning to get the message–the real message.
    I would also add to your root notion of our default thinking that our institutions, beginning with the family, reinforce our tendency toward “No!”. How many times have we heard that as children? Thanks for your post and digging in to great new (and very old..) territory. Best!

    • Thank you for your reaction. I’ll look into the book you mentioned.
      And yes, our institutions promote perfectionism too easily. Often in indirect ways they might not even be aware of. Our schools teach us everything has to be correct. Perfectionism is rewarded. And the focus is mainly on the results and not the process, thereby eliminating the highest potential for getting better at something.

      • Agreed! and thank you! Whatever happened to that always potentially brilliant territory of “the grey area”…where a person can experiment, imagine, make a mistake..and learn from it and gradually sift through the unwanted or less-inspired elements to arrive at something a bit more meaningful…NOT perfect, but a step forward and more meaningful to offer as part of a solution and to others. The “grey area” is the vital area of process you are talking about–and really nothing else can happen without it. Great post!

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