Why Perfection Can Be A Worthwhile Goal In Personal Projects

We've often argued here at Lifehacker that pursuing perfection can be an excuse for procrastination and a major annoyance. However, that doesn't mean that avoiding perfection is the right strategy in all circumstances. With a personal project, it can be the right approach to ensure you get something that satisfies you.

As part of a keynote presentation celebrating the virtues of geekdom that opened Microsoft's Tech Ed 2011 conference in Queensland, author and developer Matthew Magain argued passionately against the notion that perfection was always a problem: "We often hear that perfect is the enemy of done. Bollocks."

Magain argued that seeking perfection was a key element of the 'geek' personality:

As geeks, we're all perfectionists, and we strive to make whatever we have perfect. Perfect is not the enemy of done and we should reset our baseline of quality back to perfect.

In particular, Magain argued that when pursuing a personal project -- one which is free of workplace deadlines and pressure -- setting perfection as a goal could actually be more inspiring than settling for finishing something. If you're pursuing a passion project, why settle for inferiority?

Magain took that approach when writing a children's book, Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine:

Charlie Weatherburn was a personal project and I wanted it to be perfect. It was the pursuit of perfection that drove me to get it done. I chose to self-publish because I didn't want a publisher picking a different illustrator or changing the words. When it comes to personal projects, I believe we should be allowed to embrace perfection. There are occasions when perfect is what we should aim for and nothing less is good enough.If you're your own client, then you owe it to yourself to do everything you can to make it perfect.

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts (perfectly formed or otherwise) in the comments.


    I can really relate to this. I've been told I should see my perfectionism as a limitation, however I actually really enjoy the process of getting something to near perfection - plus, I believe it leads to a much higher standard of output. I think the key to positive perfectionism is to manage the associated drawbacks (i.e., procrastination, higher stress levels, etc.) and to understand that you should only strive for perfectionism in the things that you are really passionate about.

    It depends on your goals. If your personal project is making an app for a mobile device (while that bandwagon is still going), there's no point spending 5 years on it, because that bubble will have burst by the time you finish. You'll probably have a new device, which may require huge updates to your app to get it to work. The market will have changed. Aesthetic and technology standards may have increased. And so on.

    Just think of the game Duke Nukem Forever. The original developers wanted it to be perfect (to their standards, anyway), to the point that they went bankrupt after 14 years or so.

    Perfect is not only the enemy of done, but the enemy of good. So many shoddy projects are shoddy because someone spent so much time trying to get the first small part perfect that no time was left to do the the rest evenly adequately well.

    Some personal projects may not have deadlines... perfectionism in that context is why my father was still working on a friend's 60th birthday present (a work of art and craftsmanship) when she turned 65, and gave up the project entirely when she turned 67. Also why I have let spices I bought to make an Ethiopian spice mix sit in a cupboard for 2 years, losing their flavour (I'm not sure how to do it perfectly: if I had a deadline, I'd have taken my best guess and got something done, but without a deadline, I've been hesitant to proceed in the face of knowledge gaps).

    Sorry, while the idea and direction I understand I find it an abuse of the definition of perfect or at least an implicit redefining of it in a new sense I've not used it in and which differs from the sense that it's used in when it's described as the enemy of done. In short is it meaningful to argue against something and surreptitiously redefine the central term in phrasing the counter argument?

    Perfect as the enemy of done, is an asymptote in in the quality vs. effort curve. And by definition the enemy of one as it's the holy grail, the unachievable.

    Perfect as Matthew is using it, is some personal sense of completeness and can't-be -better-ness. But this is a redefinition and captures the very notion that near enough is good enough.

    I mean who hasn't got the picture of the never finished work of art in their mind because it's just worked and worked and reworked and never there, because the artist simply has an unclear or changing picture of completeness and can't-be -better-ness in their mind?

    And so if we define perfection as good enough, of course it's the goal, and should be strived for. If we define it as better than the rest, again, a worthy goal. If we define it as the best we can possibly achieve, again, a worthy goal. But if we understand it as those who argue it to be the enemy of done do, to be the asymptote on a quality vs. invested effort curve, I return bollocks to the notion that it's a worthy goal.

    And that's only in the solipsist view of the artists self assessment! Enter the subjective realm of other people's assessment and the very idea of perfection falls like a house of cards. I mean you might well aim for perfection and achieve it in your heart but do you you possess the hubris and arrogance to assume that this overlaps with everyone's perception of perfection? If so, I guess you have achieved perfection, but with the wool pulled over your own eyes!

    So much for perfection! ;-)

    significance: It depends on the project. It might have been a hurdle for your dad's work of art or your spice rack, but there are plenty of mediocre personal projects out there that should have set the bar higher, for the creator's sake and for ours.

    jjokin: Nothing wrong with launching before your project is perfect, and continuing to evolve and improve it—that way you get the best of both worlds. If your approach to attempting to reaching perfection is to involve your users on the journey, then you may just get there. Or at least very close :)

    Bernd: Perfect has many definitions. Obviously the one implied here is "faultlessness," rather than the equally valid "complete," which is actually the Latin root of the word. However, to take my book as an example, there's no way I would be arrogant enough to suggest that it was faultless.

    My point was this: if we aim for "good enough" then we're just lowering the bar. This may be a necessity in a commercial project, but it needn't be in a passion project. If you consider that to be a redefinition and hubris, then so be it. :) But by that same argument, nobody who achieves anything in their life can truly call themselves a perfectionist. Is that what you're suggesting?

    Personally, I'm comfortable with the notion that I strive for perfection but also get stuff done. Is that so wrong?

    Definately aim for perfection but don't sacrifice the possible good for the impossible perfect.

    The other problem for perfection - is that it is fluid, what is a perfect solution one day may not be so perfect the next. Often as a perfectionist I miss a better solution because I get caught up in my own "perfect" idea.

    Interesting point. I had never knowingly encountered the word "perfect" used to mean "complete" and consider my vocabulary to have expanded. Thanks. I mean I'd use the word "complete". I can see on software projects (having managed them) how "complete" as in "bug free" is also a holy grail not easily achieved because of the curve of diminishing returns. That is, you can do it, and we do for airplane control systems and Xray control systems and other life critical software applications, but the costs are enormous.

    Yes, I always understood perfect to mean "faultless". But curious, I looked it up at dictionary.com for maybe the first time in my recollection and was blown away by the many softer definitions! And hence I stand corrected and step down from my hobby horse relaxing my definition of perfect a wee bit ;-).

    Still, emotively I find myself clinging to the faultless definition that's served me for decades like a dog to a bone. It's not easy to let go! But dictionary.com and the esteemed viewpoints of other respected folk, are convincing too.

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