The Wisdom to Seek, But Never Achieve, Perfection

Salvador Dali claims that we should not fear perfection because we will never attain it.  That seems self-evident, but self-evident seldom deters people.  Especially people with authority.

For a bureaucracy, job #1 is to preserve and grow the bureaucracy.  They must continue to be the solution to their given problem.  That can only happen if they make the problem more subtle and ideally not measurable. The search for a perfect solution debilitated. The perfect solution is only attainable at infinite cost.

Italian polymath Vilfredo Pareto observed that in social studies, there is a an 80-20 distribution.  In management it goes that 20% of your effort, customers, money or whatever, produce 80% of the result.  Which is good if you focus on getting 80% of the problem solved.  Not so good if you want perfection.

The Pareto principle is a power law which means you can iterate it.

After solving 80% of a problem, you can solve a 80% of what is left by applying more resource.  There are some who argue that the resource required will be larger.  Double is a common estimate.  Some like a Fibonacci sequence.  So to get to 96% solved you need the first unit of resource plus two more the same size.  That makes some sense, because the problems not solved in the first go round are likely harder.

For 4 more units of resource you can solve 80% of the 4% then left.  99.2% solved for 7 units of resource.  Want to go another step for 8 more units of resource?  Solve another 0.64%  for more than double the cost to solve the first 99.2%.  You cannot reach a 100% solution. 

Someone needs to help governments understand that some problems are “solved enough.”

At a personal level, perfection is also debilitating.  A demand for perfection leads to procrastination and that eventually leads to paralysis.  Perfection implies no mistakes permitted.  No mistakes allowed implies don’t try yet.  Don’t try yet denies learning from experience.  Life is imperfect and that imperfection provides its educational strength and energy.  Use it.

Now the subtle part.

Perfection is a poor goal but pursuing perfection is a good option.  A koan.

The difference is that the pursuit of perfection requires research, skill building, decisions, action, reflection, and revision.  People who pursue perfection find that it is a moving target and the more they pursue the farther away it becomes.

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”  Einstein

It is about “what does the task mean?”  Seek wisdom not perfection.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.


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