Once upon a time, perfectionism was the mark of good work, but the truly productive people of the world have come to learn it’s best to settle for “good enough”. That’s fine when you’re making small decisions, such as picking which toothbrush to buy. As a lifestyle choice, it’s rubbish that keeps you from being great.
Last week, an article over at The Atlantic posited that settling makes people happier and more satisfied with life in general. People who settle are “satisficers”, and they’re typically happier than “maximisers”, who are always looking for the best possible option. Those who maximise every decision they make suffer decision fatigue and feel like they’re always missing out on something better. If you settle for “good enough” — whether it’s in your work, your relationships or anything else — you can alleviate that stress and be happier. But taken too far, the idea holds you back.
Without “Maximisers”, “Satisficers” Can’t Exist
Over a decade ago, psychologist Barry Schwartz published his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, in which lays out that settling for “good enough” alleviates the pressures of decision making. Every day, we’re faced with too many options, and we waste time on trying to make the best one. When you just settle on “good enough”, you can move on to things that matter.
Speaking with psychology blogger Eric Barker, Schwartz points out that satisficers are happier because they don’t spend as much time making decisions or worrying about missing out on anything. One solution, according to Schwartz, is to take advantage of your maximiser friends:
Whenever you need a new laptop, call up one of your maximizer friends and say, “What laptop did you buy?” And you buy that laptop. Is it going to be the perfect laptop for you? Probably not. Is it going to be a good enough laptop for you? Absolutely. It takes you five minutes to make a decision instead of five weeks and it’s a “good enough” decision. You need a place to eat in a city that you’re visiting, so call another friend who’s been to that city. Just go to the restaurant he tells you to go to. I don’t think you can delegate all of the decisions in life in this way but you can certainly delegate a hell of a lot of them. What’s best for your friend won’t be best for you but chances are it will be good enough for you. I think this is a great way to reduce the clutter and the paralysis that afflicts people. Just ask for advice and follow it.
In short, satisficers can only benefit when they have maximiser friends. Or, at the very least, they can only benefit when things like The Wirecutter exist to help them make choices. You can’t delegate that decision process to someone who doesn’t exist, so those maximisers have to stick around, or a pillar of the system falls apart.
You’re Keeping Yourself from Doing What You Want to Do
Settling on which TV to buy, or the quality of today’s busywork, is usually for the best. But, if you do this for everything, you’ll never do the things you want to do.
Let’s take, for example, something like a holiday. You’ve always wanted to go skiing in the Swiss Alps. But you know what? Thredbo is good enough for skiing, so you’ll just do that again this year. And next year. And the year after that. Eventually, you’re too old to ski, and you never did that one thing you wanted to do. You regret it, but there’s nothing to do about it now.
It’s an extreme example, but the fact remains: If you settle for “good enough” you’ll never do what you want to do. You can apply the same premise to your work projects, who you date, and everything else in life.
“Good Enough” Means You Won’t Spend Enough Time to Get Great
If you’re always settling for “good enough”, you’re not going to challenge yourself to do great things or become a real expert at anything. As writer Scott H Young points out, “stopping at ‘good enough’ is an easy way to ensure you’ll never accomplish anything remarkable”. It’s hard to be fulfilled when you approach everything as “good enough”.
Young breaks down perfectionism to different types: good and bad, or short-term and long-term. Short-term perfection is when you’re obsessed with a small project that doesn’t necessitate it. Maybe you’re devoting too much time to a first essay response in an exam, or polishing your resume instead of sending it off. This is bad perfectionism, and a perfect example of when “good enough” is indeed good enough (because it helps you move forward).
However, in long-term projects, perfectionism is crucial. If you want to master something, you have to keep pushing yourself to explore new ways of doing things. You’ll always settle for something that’s acceptable, but not great, and you won’t improve.
Let’s say you’re a programmer. You’ve worked in the industry a few years, and you’re running your company with the “done is better than perfect” attitude. That’s fine for getting something out the door and into the hands of consumers, but it’s not going to stand out from everything else unless there’s something special about it. If you keep releasing more and more products that are “good enough”, you’ll never have the time to become better at what you do. You’ll be faster and more efficient, but you won’t master the intangible skill set to make something great. “Good enough” is great for limiting your choices, but don’t let it limit your potential.
Balance Out Your “Maximiser” and “Satisficer” Tendencies
As with all things, I’m not saying that “good enough” doesn’t have its place. It’s about balance. Schwartz and others typically argue that “good enough is almost always good enough”. I’d say “good enough is sometimes good enough”.
Chances are, you’re an expert at something. At the very least, you have a hobby or interest where you’ve collected a lot of knowledge, researched different options and come to your own conclusions about what’s best. Basically, you’re a maximiser in certain respects, but you enjoy doing it so much that you don’t realise it. Harness that — be a maximiser when it matters and a satisficer on the stuff that isn’t important to you.
If you love something, “good enough” is never good enough. And that’s OK. Perfectionism gets a bad rap these days because we’re trained to think perfectionists get nothing done, but that’s not entirely true. Perfectionists get less done, but it’s of better quality, and that’s perfectly OK provided you don’t strive to do that with your entire life. Pick your battles wisely.
Picking out a toothbrush? Limit your choices and move on. Picking out a new set of tools for your pet project? Take the time to find what’s going to work best for you.