Don’t let the best be enemy of the good
VITHAL C NADKARNI
ONCE upon a time in a garret at back-of-beyond there lived a hack. He believed he was too good for the soul-killer of a job he did in daytime. He believed even more strongly that the magnum opus he was feverishly working on by night would, one day, proclaim his genius to a grateful world. His analyst however suspected otherwise. The shrink knew at first hand the secret fears and public phobias that were sapping the hack’s Muse from bursting into full flower.
The wise lady therefore cautioned the genius-in-waiting against unrealistic aspirations which the writer seemed to have set up just in order to fail (if only to ‘prove’ the greatness of his talent in an unfeeling world). She cited research findings galore about the perfectionists’ not-so-secret scripts of self-defeat, about how these too-goodfor-grimy-world angels deliberately seemed to adopt inefficient work habits that hurt their actual performance. They toiled slowly; agonised over every painful detail, and spent much more time on a project than it deserved without really adding too much additional value.
The procrastination of the perfectionist was even worse, the therapist warned. The procrastinators seemed to love the travel or the struggle even more than actual goals and targets, perhaps because perfection often seemed to shimmer sweetly beyond our all-too-grubby human capacities. Other experts warned that perfectionism backfired when people measured their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and achievement. Vulnerable to a loss of self-esteem and painful mood swings after any setback, such people applied themselves inconsistently and ultimately ended up accomplishing less because of their impossible-to-please standards, they added. Voltaire, the French master of the bon mot, summed up this paradox perfectly: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Perfectionism can also become an albatross around one’s neck when there is a mismatch between goals and energies in inappropriate areas. When a serious student with a tendency to obsess decides to devote the same kind of focus and zeal to dieting one could end up with anorexia, for example. How to strive without burn-out was the question.
The hack eventually saw the light (aided by kindly criticism and rejection slips). Easing up entirely on expectations, he flowed to fulfilment, just as the Bhagvad Gita advised.