A recurring theme occurring in various contexts over the years seemed to be corroborated with the need for perfection, need going sometimes in extremis beyond common sense. The simplest theory attempting to explain at least some of these situations is that people tend to confuse excellence with perfection, from this confusion deriving false beliefs, false expectations and unhealthy behavior.
Beyond the fact that each individual has an illusory image of what perfection is about, perfection is in certain situations a limiting force rooted in the idealistic way of looking at life. Primarily, perfection denotes that we will never be good enough to reach it as we are striving to something that doesn’t exist. From this appears the external and internal criticism, criticism that instead of helping us to build something it drains out our energy to the extent that it destroys all we have built over the years with a considerable effort. Secondarily, on the long run, perfection has the tendency to steal our inner peace and balance, letting fear take over — the fear of not making mistakes, of losing the acceptance and trust of the others. It focuses on our faults, errors and failures instead of driving us to our goals. In extremis it relieves the worst in people, actors and spectators altogether.
In its proximate semantics though at diametral side through its implications, excellence focuses on our goals, on the aspiration of aiming higher without implying a limit to it. It’s a shift of attention from failure to possibilities, on what matters, on reaching our potential, on acknowledging the long way covered. It allows us building upon former successes and failures. Excellence is what we need to aim at in personal and professional life. Will Durant explaining Aristotle said that: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
People who attempt giving 100% of their best to achieve a (positive) goal are to admire, however the proximity of 100% is only occasionally achievable, hopefully when needed the most. 100% is another illusory limit we force upon ourselves as it’s correlated to the degree of achievement, completeness or quality an artefact or result can ideally have. We rightly define quality as the degree to which something is fit for purpose. Again, a moving target that needs to be made explicit before we attempt to reach it otherwise quality envisions perfection rather than excellence and effort is wasted.
Considering the volume of effort needed to achieve a goal, Pareto’s principles (aka the 80/20 rule) seems to explain the best its underlying forces. The rule states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. A corollary is that we can achieve 80% of a goal with 20% of the effort needed altogether to achieve it fully. This means that to achieve the remaining 20% toward the goal we need to put four times more of the effort already spent. This rule seems to govern the elaboration of concepts, designs and other types of documents, and I suppose it can be easily extended to other activities like writing code, cleaning data, improving performance, etc.
Given the complexity, urgency and dependencies of the tasks or goals before us probably it’s beneficial sometimes to focus first on the 80% of their extent, so we can make progress, and focus on the remaining 20% if needed, when needed. This concurrent approach can allow us making progress faster in incremental steps. Also, in time, through excellence, we can bridge the gap between the two numbers as is needed less time and effort in the process.
® Originally published on sql-troubles