A few years ago I painted our backyard. (OK, if truth be told, I hired some guys to paint our backyard…) Choosing the colour was tricky and I’d put the whole thing off twice because I couldn’t decide. Finally I found it, a washed-out pale verdigris, aqua, dirty green colour. All was well.
Except that on the wall it turned into a very strange neon baby blue…
The painter assured me another coat would fix it, so that’s what we did. All was well.
Except that the next morning I woke up and knew it was still wrong. I spent all day convincing myself it was OK, but deep inside was a little voice telling me it had to be re-done. Hard (and expensive), but I had to get it right, so I went to a different paint company and chose another, greener, paint. The painters came back and did it all again. All was well.
Except that it still didn’t match the (perfect) colour in my mind. I spent all that day convincing myself it was OK, and this time I realised it actually was OK. Not perfect, but certainly good enough.
And that’s the key – our work, especially creative work, will never be perfect, it just has to be ‘good enough’. And in careers and business, I think there are 3 kinds of finished work – not yet good enough, good enough and really really good.
‘Not yet good enough’ speaks for itself – like that first paint colour I chose, you just know it needs more work, that it can’t be allowed to stay the way it is. You may resist at first, but you know you won’t be satisfied til you redo it, til you have that conversation with the client, til you spend a few hours doing more research or whatever. Easy.
It’s the distinction between ‘good enough’ and ‘really really good’ that causes the most grief and confusion.
Sometime things do have to be really really good, even if it takes blood and sweat and, almost certainly, tears. That big pitch, the career-changing presentation or interview, all are worth whatever it takes. Before I did my first major keynote, I rehearsed the whole 45-minute talk in full, 8 times, after I had spent maybe 15 hours putting it together. It was what I needed to do to have it at the right level, and it was worth it.
But many of us get caught up in the perfection trap: ‘Everything I do has to be perfect, and if it can’t be perfect, I can’t do it at all’. Sound familiar? Well, it may be familiar, but it’s rubbish.
Much of what we do is just fine at the ‘good enough’ level. I do quite a bit of lifeskills training through community centres. I often don’t have a huge amount of time to prepare, so I tend to pull together some exercises, organise my thoughts and off I go. It is always less polished than any of my more corporate work, but it serves its purpose – and in fact a really slick performance would be over-the-top and strike the wrong tone.
I also agonise sometimes over small details that no-one will ever notice – yes, it would be nice to get it all completely perfect, but in a business or workplace scenario, if it takes you 7 hours to do the first 90%, is it worth spending another 2 hours to fine-tune the bits that are not essential to your message or its impact? Probably not.
(I’m not talking about checking facts or removing typos here – inaccuracies or really sloppy presentation are never good enough, never…)
The other way this often plays out is to postpone a new project or product or piece of writing because ‘I am not good enough…yet’. There is a great book by Western Buddhist nun Pema Chodron called Start Where You Are, which talks about doing your best from wherever you are right now. I look back at my early writing, at my first website or my memories of my early workshops, and yes, things have moved on a long way since then. But if I hadn’t started there, I would never have reached where I am today.
I fully expect it will be the same looking back in another 5 years. We build on our work every day and it should get better and better over time. Today’s ‘good enough’ is not necessarily going to be good enough in 5 years, but it’s just fine right now.
So, is your work good enough?