Way back in 1770 the French philosopher, historian, and poet Voltaire wrote that “Perfect is the Enemy of Good.”1 He was quoting an Italian proverb, which was itself probably derived from the Greeks or the Etruscans or somebody, but we’ll go with Voltaire because he said so many wonderful things and deserves all the credit he can get.
This statement, “Perfect is the Enemy of Good,” seems troubling at first glance. Shouldn’t we strive for perfection, even if we know that we — flawed beasts that we are — can never achieve it? According to yet another poet, Robert Browning, “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”2
So which way do we roll? Browning is telling us that we should try to do impossible things because even when we fail we will have pushed ourselves higher than we would normally go. Voltaire is saying that by insisting on an impossible perfection we miss out on doing things that might not be perfect but are nonetheless good, both doable and worth doing. It’s not hard to agree with both of these statements, even though they seem mutually exclusive.
What if we accept the idea that both can be true, both valid, but in an imperfect way?
Aiming higher than we can realistically go is about aspiration rather than actual achievement. After all, the whole point of Browning’s statement is that you’re making an attempt that is destined to fail, knowing that it’s going to fail, but trying it anyway, in the hope of benefiting from the mere attempt. Voltaire’s contribution here is telling us to look at what we do manage to achieve, even when we fail to reach perfection, and to recognize the value of that accomplishment.
As is so often the case, I’m sure by now you’re all listening to what I’m saying and thinking: “Is he going somewhere with this?” Well, yes. I am.
We’re there now, in fact.
Unless you’ve been on Mars for the last few weeks, you know that I’ve just self-published my second novel. Over the last few months, this epic has been edited and proofread by two trained human beings (not including myself) and has been chewed over thoroughly by Grammarly’s AI. Whether or not you think that what I’ve written is any good, I can, at least, assert that this text is free of errors.3
Yesterday, ten copies of the paperback arrived on my doorstep. I won’t try to tell you that this is anything like seeing your newborn child for the first time — but that’s exactly what it was like. I opened the box and pulled out one of the precious books. The text, the formatting… every page was perfect.
Unfortunately, this perfect work of art was wrapped in a cover whose lettering was slightly off-center.
Cue the heavy music in a minor key, the roaring of the storm, the crashing of the waves as the ship strikes the rocks. Cue the massive depression, waiting in the wings just for moments like this.
Mind you, the books weren’t hideous. Just because the baby’s ears stick out doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy of love. They just weren’t perfect. My reach had exceeded my grasp, and I had achieved something good, but not perfect, and I was devastated.
During the course of the evening, I corrected the problem — which may or may not have ever been visible to anyone but me in the first place — and arranged to send that first batch of books away to the great pulping machine in the sky. By this time tomorrow, everything will be fine. Probably still not perfect, but good.
I could say that the crisis has been averted, but there never really was a crisis except in my own overheated imagination. My desire to create something perfect had blinded me to the fact that I’d made something good. Now it will even be more good, but still not perfect, because if there wasn’t a visible flaw, I’d imagine one anyway. I wouldn’t know perfection if it ran up and bit me.
The moral of this story? If you can’t get to perfect — and none of us can, not really — then learn to accept good when the delivery guy drops it on your doorstep. Lighten up, for Pete’s sake!
. . .
1 M. de Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, 1770-1772
2 Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”, from the collection Men and Women, 1855
3 A nod to the readers of my first novel, The Bone Doll, whose first printing was chock full of typos. That situation has since been remedied, but it still makes my stomach hurt whenever I think about it.