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The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good Meaning

In his writings, a wise Italian says that the best is the enemy of the good

-Voltaire

The quote, usually known as “the perfect as the enemy of the good”, implies that there exists a dichotomy, a difference between the perfect and the good. Whereas our intuition tells us that the perfect is the ultimate stage of the good, Voltaire suggests the opposite, that the two are at odds, or are incompatible with each another.

When people usually think about this idea, they apply it to the learning of a new craft, the completion of a project, the adoption of a new habit or the elimination of an old one.

If you think, “either I stop smoking completely or I will never smoke at all”, then you are aiming for perfection, which you, in all likelihood, may not achieve.

It’s better to cut down a little than not to cut down at all.

If you want to write better, it’s better to write a hundred words a day, than nothing at all. If you want to exercise, it’s better to exercise for 5 minutes a day than not all. If you refuse to write or exercise because you feel you are so far behind the greatest writers and the greatest athletes, you will never achieve any progress.

The need for perfection is an offspring of ideation rather than of action.

The Lean Startup method emphasizes testing and reiteration rather than ideation. It’s better to build something that is bad which you can later improve than to refuse to test your product and get feedback until you have designed it perfectly, which may take years to do (and you may be wrong).

Trying to write the perfect book and thus spending years thinking of the best idea will rob of you of the opportunity of writing a book, even if bad, which will help you improve writing other books.

The author, James Clear, gives the example of the photography professor who divided his students into two groups, one that focused on quality and another that focused on quality. Both groups were asked to produce the best piece of art (photograph) they could by the end of the semester. The group that got more practice won. They had more iterations, ample opportunity to learn from their errors, and eventually produced high quality work. The group that did no iterations and only thought about what they were going to do produced low quality work.

The author Nassim Taleb corroborates this idea by insisting that we learn by doing, not by thinking. Unless you are a mathematician or a logician, thinking will get you nowhere. “Only a fool thinks in words.” If you want to learn about trading stocks, practice trading, don’t get a PhD in Finance. If you want to learn how to run a business, start one, don’t read 100 books about Entrepreneurship.

Most inventions that happen are ones that happen by accident.

Consider a couple of examples: Penicillin and Viagra.

Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the antibiotic in 1928, when he came back from a vacation and found that a green mold called Pennicilium notatum had contaminated Petri dishes in his lab.

Britannica

The sildenafil compound was originally developed by Pfizer for the treatment of hypertension (high blood pressure) and angina pectoris (chest pain due to heart disease). During the heart clinical trials, researchers discovered that the drug was more effective at inducing erections than treating angina. (Viagra was born.)

Drugs

If You Don’t Do, Observe

Da Vinci’s emphasis on empirical observation also helped him improve his art. … His studies of the body, animals, motion, shadow and light, perspective and proportion helped him better understand what he was seeing in front of him, and render it in art more accurately and finely than anyone else of his time.

Vox

Some artists and thinkers draw their inspiration from what they observe rather than from what they practice. But Da Vinci had to combine the act of painting with the act of observation, so even he needed to practice.

Baudrillard, the philosopher, came up with his theory of the Simulacra by observing the world around him for a long time. He didn’t derive his ideas from the ideas of others but from his direct experience. But they did not occur to him out of nowhere, he actively observed society around him.

Rene Girard developed Mimetic Theory by reading the best novels that were written (Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Proust, Stendal). He noticed the pattern of mimesis by accident.

Freud and Jung came up with their insights into the unconscious by cataloging the dreams and experiences of his patients for many years, and studying primordial cultures. He didn’t think it up in a vacuum.

To think in a vacuum is impossible. Our ideas are derivatives of other ideas or explanations of what we observe, if we are truly original. But even those who are the most original cannot not without some form of active practice or training. The inspired genius from birth is a myth propagated by Hollywood.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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