Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Quote dump on perfectionism

I once wrote a ramble on the idea of "the best is the enemy of the good enough". This is a common phrase to try and get people out of "perfection paralysis", where they never do anything or show anyone anything (not even explicitly labeled work in progress!) because it's not perfect or at least "done". The idea is to ask, is it at least "good enough"? Then ship it!

My rejoinder then, and now, is a warning against the common phrase. "The good enough is the enemy of the better." But seeing that, we also see that "the best is the enemy of the better" as well. We have three values, and they're all enemies of each other, which means you need to evaluate the tradeoffs when deciding what level you want to achieve for any particular thing. Here are some of my current thoughts about the three.

The good enough: it's some artifact you've put out there. It might not measure up to your tastes, but it's something. It may not be perfect, but you don't always need perfect. Maybe you can make it better later, but it might just be good enough that you can abandon it and move on to something else. If you always settle for the good enough, though, you'll never create a perfect magnum opus. But maybe that's fine.

The better: what can't be made better? If you've put out something good enough, it may be worthwhile to increment and make it better. If you've put out your magnum opus, your grand, perfect, best work... you run into the danger of not seeing its blemishes years down the road. Just a bit of polish could make it "better". Minimally so, but still, nevertheless better. Better has a danger though that can be countered by the good enough. If you always are trying to make something "better", whether or not you think the "best" can be achieved, you still might never ship, because there's always some improvement to make. At some point you need to make it just good enough to put out there and let others see -- besides, their feedback can show you things you've missed that will make it much better than you could do alone.

The best: possibly attainable, cost is high. If you always strive for it, you may never achieve it. But if you do achieve it, or something very close (like a gesamtkunstwerk) that's something special and rare and worthwhile. It may not be possible to create such a thing just by small increments of "better and better", so if you aim to create such a thing, you need to have that in mind at the beginning. But additionally, you might not be able to make your first real project into one of these things. You might need to go through a few "good enoughs" that get put out there and dumped, letting you start on something new, before you're finally ready to start fresh on your magnum opus. If you're younger than 20, it's very unlikely what you'll make will be perfect (there are always exceptions) and even as the years go on it doesn't get that much likelier. Practice matters.

Sometimes you see the best as "the right thing". Sometimes you have a moral imperative to do the best you can, which makes judging the traeoffs easy. But a lot of the time you're just trying to hustle and make some money, good enough is good enough. No matter what, though, I think it's important not to lose sight that better is possible, even if only philosophically so when you're judging those great works that don't seem capable of improvement without destroying the whole.

I was discussing this issue with someone recently and went looking at my quotes file for some further inspiration to give them. Here's a dump of related quotes, the differing mindsets in them reflect the nature of a tradeoff existing.

When you don't create things, you become defined by
your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only
narrow & exclude people. So create.
--why the lucky stiff

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of
us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there
is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that
good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste,
the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why
your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they
--Ira Glass

Perfection is our goal. Excellence will be tolerated.
--J. Yahl

And don't EVER make the mistake that you can design something better than what
you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle.
That's giving your intelligence much too much credit.

I don't know that I ever wanted greatness, on its own. It seems rather like
wanting to be an engineer, rather than wanting to design something - or wanting
to be a writer, rather than wanting to write. It should be a by-product, not a
thing in itself. Otherwise, it's just an ego trip.
--Roger Zelazny, Prince of Chaos

Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious and
anything self-conscious is lousy. You cannot try to do things. You simply must
do things.
--Ray Bradbury

Because they are autodidacts. The main purpose of higher education
and making all the smartest kids from one school come together with
all the smartest kids from other schools, recursively, is to show every
smart kid everywhere that they are not the smartest kid around, that
no matter how smart they are, they are not equally smart at everything
even though they were just that to begin with, and there will therefore
always be smarter kids, if nothing else, than at something other than
they are smart at. If you take a smart kid out of this system, reward
him with lots of money that he could never make otherwise, reward him
with control over machines that journalists are morbidly afraid of and
make the entire population fear second-hand, and prevent him from ever
meeting smarter people than himself, he will have no recourse but to
believe that he /is/ smarter than everybody else. Educate him properly
and force him to reach the point of intellectual exhaustion and failure
where there is no other route to success than to ask for help, and he
will gain a profound respect for other people. Many programmers act
like they are morbidly afraid of being discovered to be less smart than
they think they are, and many of them respond with extreme hostility on
Usenet precisely because they get a glimpse of their own limitations.
To people whose entire life has been about being in control, loss of
control is actually a very good reason to panic.
––Erik Naggum, 2004

Self-respect is at the root of all purposefulness, and a failure in an
enterprise deliberately planned deals a desperate wound at one's self-respect.
--Arnold Bennett

what makes me such a lousy programmer is that i can excuse anything by saying
this isn't so bad— i myself am a much bigger hack than this.

In my life as an architect, I find that the single thing which inhibits young
professionals, new students most severely, is their acceptance of standards
that are too low. If I ask a student whether her design is as good as Chartres,
she often smiles tolerantly at me as if to say, "Of course not, that isn't what
I am trying to do...I could never do that."

Then, I express my disagreement, and tell her: "That standard must be our
standard. If you are going to be a builder, no other standard is worthwhile."

--Christopher Alexander, May 1996 in (Patterns of Software, Gabriel)

These arguments were the lifeblood of the hacker community. Sometimes people
would literally scream at each other, insisting on a certain kind of coding
scheme for an assembler, or a specific type of interface, or a particular
feature in a computer language. These differences would have hackers banging on
the blackboard or throwing chalk across the room. It wasn't so much a battle of
egos as it was an attempt to figure out what "The Right Thing" was. The term
had special meaning to the hackers. The Right Thing implied that to any
problem, whether a programming dilemma, a hardware interface mismatch, or a
question of software architecture, a solution existed that was The
perfect algorithm. You'd have hacked right into the sweet spot, and anyone with
half a brain would see that the straight line between two points had been
drawn, and there was no sense trying to top it. "The Right Thing", Gosper would
later explain, "very specifically meant the unique, correct, elegant
solution...the thing that satisfied all the constraints at the same time, which
everyone seemed to believe existed for most problems."

Gosper and Greenblatt both had strong opinions, but usually Greenblatt would
tire of corrosive human interfacing, and wander away to actually *implement*
something. Elegant or not. In his thinking, *things had to be done*. And if no
one else would be hacking them, he would.

--Steve Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

The word 'impossible' was not known in those days. What Englishmen did once
they may do again perhaps if stormy days come back.

Posted on 2019-08-04 by Jach

Tags: philosophy, quotes


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