It was the probably the first time someone had burst his smug, self-important bubble. Likely the first time someone told him that his work wasn’t good enough.
I gave him back his shoddy analysis. I pointed out the flawed assumptions and asked him to take another look. His calculations were wrong. The design wouldn’t survive under extreme conditions.
He said I was being unreasonable. He told me that there’s no need to be a perfectionist over everything.
He complained. To me, to his coworkers, and then to anyone that would listen. And when none of that worked, he went back and redid the analysis. Several times.
But did he have a point? Was I being unreasonable? Had I become a perfectionist?
Maybe. But you know what, that’s a good thing.
The Price of Low Standards
The world is not running out of people who can deliver mediocre work. Not now and not anytime soon. There’s no reason that any of us should add to this quantity.
Our culture has become comfortable with shrugging our shoulders when things go wrong. People seem content to turn out low quality work and consider it good enough. If we don’t confront these instances, we reinforce the notion that it’s okay to settle for mediocrity. Or worse.
In July 2014, a pregnant woman was killed following a relatively minor traffic collision. Her airbag went off, but instead of cushioning the impact, it sent a metal fragment into her neck. Her daughter, delivered after her mother’s death, died three days later.
These were but two of the deaths caused by Takata airbags. The combination of poor housing design and lack of chemical drying agents turned a supposed life-saving device into a bomb, sending shrapnel into drivers and passengers.
How many people would still be alive today if the engineering team at Takata included more perfectionists?
Or the mining company that crushed a three-year old boy to death when they started to widen a road in the middle of the night, knocked loose a half-ton boulder, and sent it rolling into his family’s house. The company paid a $15,000 fine for their mistake, with many people content to say that some mistakes are just inevitable.
The backhoe driver was poorly trained. The company didn’t properly light the area or provide additional oversight. And they didn’t even have a permit to widen the road in the first place. So yes, mistakes of blatant incompetence and negligence were made.
The construction supervisor probably wasn’t a bad person. I’m sure he didn’t want to hurt anyone. But he wasn’t a perfectionist. Not even close. If he had been, a little boy might still be alive.
I’ll say it again. The world is not running out of people who can deliver mediocre work. There’s no shortage of people that are content to sacrifice quality for quantity. The world needs more of those willing to take the opposite path.
Commit to Perfection
“Our greatest invention in the past 200 years was not a particular gadget or tool but the invention of the scientific process itself,” Kevin Kelly wrote in The Inevitable. And what is the scientific process if not a pursuit of perfection? It’s our greatest invention because it opens the way for more innovation, more development, and more discoveries.
It’s a continuous refinement, one of controlled failures and experiments. It lets us make smaller and smaller circles towards that ultimate goal of perfection.
Yet there’s a catch. With that path — that pursuit of perfection — comes the risk of failure.
For all of our talk of failing fast and failing safely, we still don’t like to fail. The waves of self-help gurus and life coaches clogging up the internet don’t help either. They’re everywhere, promoting their quick fixes that will turn you into a success tomorrow without even the chance of failure.
And so we settle. We take the easy out. We don’t strive for perfection, because that brings the chance of failure. It’s easier to lower our standards, settle for ordinary, and rationalize it away as good enough. No one tells themselves that they’re delivering mediocre work — they’re just doing something that’s good enough for now.
Unfortunately, good enough is rarely enough.
It’s not enough to separate yourself from the pack. It’s not enough to truly contribute. And it’s not enough to deliver on the talent and value that you have to offer. As Debbie Millman said, “If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve.”
Failure isn’t fun. I don’t care how many people tell me I’m supposed to love it, I don’t. Failure reminds us that we’re not yet good enough. It offers a lesson in humility and a check to our self-esteem.
But it’s temporary. It’s one part of that scientific process that brings us ever closer to perfection. And the result — one of continued growth in it’s pursuit — offers a much bigger benefit than any amount of settling or quick fixes ever could.
John Wooden wrote, “Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.” Perfection isn’t something that we can pursue when it’s convenient. There’s no switch that lets us quickly move from mediocrity into excellence. How you do anything is how you do everything. And the standards that you bring to one area of your life will influence the standards in every other part.
It starts with chasing perfection in the small things. It starts with perfecting the minor details — those habits we do every day. And like any investment, it compounds from there.
Where are you chasing perfection? And where are you settling for good enough? A better question is, when you look back on your legacy, will you be happy with these answers?
I’ve always felt that if I can hold myself accountable to the highest standards, then no one else will ever be able to do so. And the only credible way to hold others accountable to these standards is to make sure I’m holding myself to an even higher one. It If that makes me a perfectionist, I’m okay with that.