Many people argue that the pursuit of perfection is akin to paralysis by analysis.
Or increasing effort resulting in diminishing returns.
And what aphorism do they invariably cite to prop up their argument?
"Perfection is the enemy of the good."
It certainly sounds valid.
Like some sort of universal truth.
But what is that truth?
What's the real meaning behind those seven, oft-quoted words?
Ironically a Google search attributes the exact phrase to the 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert.
A perfectionist known for agonizing over the fine-grain of his writing (he took five years to write Madame Bovary).
The quote is more likely taken from the French "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."
Literally translated as "The best is the enemy of good."
It was written almost a century earlier by Voltaire in his poem, La Bégueule (The Prudes).
Here's the phrase in context:
In his writings, a wise Italian
Said that the best is the enemy of the good;
No one can grow in prudence,
In goodness of heart, talent, science;
Look for the best of these chapters there;
Elsewhere avoid the chimera.
As it stands, happy that can be pleasing,
Living in his place, and keep what he has!
It appears that all the talk about accepting "good enough" misses the author's point.
In fact, it inverts it!
Voltaire's "good" is prudence, the status quo.
His "best" is a pursuit of excellence that threatens that good.
They are enemies intent on snuffing the other out.
People, and by extension society, can not grow by being cautious and judicious.
By being overly concerned with preserving their standing.
Instead, they must remain hostile to the social order.
They must strive for greatness in their hearts and in their work.
Our world is advanced by those who dare to struggle for perfection.
The rebels and provocateurs who help change our lives from what it is to what they believe it should be.
Flaubert did write, "Be regular in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
So when it comes to "living in your place," avoid the hollow belief that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.
But when it comes to your work and your community, ignore the merely good.
Instead, be an enemy of the ordinary.
And when times get tough, which they invariably will for passionate souls driven to change things, take a deep breathe.
Then close your eyes, smile and recite this childhood mantra:
"Good, better, best, never let it rest,
'Till your good is better, and your better's best."
Then don't compete.
Think about the word "competition."
It's from the Latin "competere."
It means "seeking or striving together."
The competitive paradigm forces you to compare yourself to others.
To align your thinking and action with others.
Others who are like you.
And so inevitably, you begin focusing on the wrong things.
It's like running a road race.
At the start of a race, you have a panoptic view.
You're aware of everything and everyone.
But as the race progresses, you tend to focus narrowly.
On those few runners nearest to you.
Instead of viewing your work from this classic competitive angle.
Try seeing it from a customer's viewpoint.
This new view will make all the difference in the world.
To them, to you, to your people.
And, inevitably, to your bottom line.
Do you know that it's impossible to hit a major
Let's do the math.
It takes 250 milliseconds for the muscles, bones and tendons of an elite athlete to take a full swing.
The visual reaction time—the time is takes to see the ball and mentally respond to it—is 200 milliseconds.
Now, add those two times together.
The sum is the time it takes for a batter to see (perception), feel, think (cognition) and swing (decision and action).
A full 450 milliseconds.
But here's the problem.
A fastball travels from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt in just 400 milliseconds.
50 milliseconds quicker than the batter's perception--cognition--action biology.
So how do they do it?
They flip common sense.
They reverse the order of their evolutionary programming.
Instead of allowing perception—their present reality—to drive their actions, they begin with belief.
They're not driven by their senses.
Instead, they're driven by a sense of purpose.
A philosophy and guiding approach (belief).
Then they turn on their thinking minds and master the details of that approach (cognition).
They study and practice until it shifts their perception.
Until it creates new muscle memory and becomes second nature.
And finally—and only then—they allow their instincts and senses to advise them.
To filter information and inform their framework (perception).
They don't have to think about every decision, because their beliefs have trained their perception.
It is impossible to hit a major league fastball (try it).
Yet those driven by their beliefs are busy warming up for another day on their field of dreams.
Because they've flipped their lids.
They've reversed their default mental programming.
They've discovered that breakthrough achievement is about belief, then perception.
Conviction, then action.
Magic, then logic.
Heart, then head.
They know that seeing isn't believing.
Believing is seeing.
Note: The above was taken from my new book, The Business of Belief.
I've sat through countless meetings where business people rationalize with charts and graphs.
Data that "prove" their offerings are "better" than the competition.
And not simply objectively better, based on product and service performance.
Subjectively better according to consumer survey data and third party reviews.
The funny thing is, in most cases the data does not correlate with growth and profitability.
And that's because the marketplace is flooded with better.
Better is something that can be rationally teased apart and quickly duplicated.
Which makes better a path to lower prices and shrinking margins.
"Best" is the only path to success today.
Best is about being the best for a particular audience.
Being the best for is the only marketplace today that's not crowded.
Because the best widen the gap by doing more and more of what their audience desires.
And less and less of everything else.
And that makes them stand out.
It makes them irreplaceable.
Consider visual-effects firm Rhythm & Hues.
They were better than others at landing the film Life of Pi.
And they were, arguably, better than others at the actual work.
The firm won the 2013 Academy Award for Best visual effects.
But they were not the best.
They were not irreplaceable.
And so, less than two weeks before receiving the Oscar, Rythm & Hues went bankrupt.
Because being better is simply not enough any longer.
Not when supply is out of control.
So you have a choice.
Hold on for dear life and wait for supply to get under control.
Or be the best.
The first choice takes nerves (and reserves).
The second takes belief.
Years ago I was exposed to a simple idea.
It was referred to as "the three knobs."
Every project is ultimately controlled by turning knobs.
Up or down.
There's the time knob, or the duration of a project.
The money knob, otherwise known as the dollar investment.
And the people knob, or the human capital investment.
Once a project is launched, those three knobs are your only way to effect the outcome.
When the project runs into an unexpected challenge, you have a few choices.
You can turn the time knob, extending the duration of the project, while holding the money and people knobs steady.
You can hold the time knob where it is and turn up the money knob, people knob, or both.
Or, you can mix it up.
A little project drift, a little resource add.
Sounds ridiculously obvious, doesn't it?
I can assure you that it is not.
Take today's most critical project.
No one is willing to adjust the time knob out.
Most organizations want more revenues, and faster.
But they're also not turning the other two knobs.
They're reluctant to even pause and think.
To consider new insights and reevaluate their value proposition.
Because that will take time and resources.
And everyone is afraid to turn a knob.
That's why we're seeing a surge in companies replacing people.
It doesn't require the difficult decision to turn a knob.
No one has to do any soul-searching.
Simply shift the pressure to someone else.
And then lull yourself into a false sense of hope.
Like what's happening in Washington, D.C.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "Most of our pocket wisdom is conceived for the use of mediocre people.
To discourage them from ambitious attempts, and generally console them in their mediocrity."
Please don't acquiesce to mediocrity.
Pause and take a clear-eyed view of the true value of what you offer.
Bring in quality thinkers to work with you.
To challenge you to bring what you do to life for the benefit of your people and your customers.
Now is the time, while everyone else is numb, to turn up the money and people knobs.
To create something exceptional.
Today's marketplace demands ambitious attempts.
There's an old story about two shoe salesmen.
They're sent by their companies to Africa to scout the market.
One man calls his company and requests the first flight home.
"We can't sell shoes here," he explains, dejectedly. "No one wears them."
The other salesman excitedly calls his home office.
"Awesome opportunity! No one here wears shoes!"
That little tale is typically told to make a motivational point.
That attitude is everything!
Unfortunately, it's not.
Not in today's supersaturated, modern marketplace.
Today, perspective is everything.
100 years ago, awareness was enough to drive success.
People craved anything new.
Modern conveniences, like washing machines and air conditioners.
If you made people aware, they gobbled them up.
50 years later, understanding drove decision-making.
Let people know that your product never breaks down, and sales soared.
And now what, when price and quality are table stakes?
When a Google search for anything returns thousands of options?
Of course, we still need awareness, understanding and optimism.
But they follow perspective.
Insights are what drive success today.
Insights were the fuel that powered Google, Apple, Amazon and others.
And they're the keys that will unlock your success as well.
The computer scientist Alan Kay said, "A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points."
Success doesn't come to the smartest, nor to the most optimistic.
It comes to those with the right perspective for our times.
Note: Which shoe salesman had the right perspective for today's marketplace? You can find out by reading this (The answer is there, if you want it.).
In the late 90s, I was introduced to the single most important aspect of successful influence.
The lesson was passionately expressed by an aging salesman in the film "Jerry MaGuire."
"If this is empty, this doesn't matter."
He made his point while emphatically pointing first to his heart, and then to his head.
I was quite moved by that flashback scene.
And I was sure I knew exactly what he meant.
But I didn't.
At the time, I was working at a company that developed and sold medical devices.
My job was to get busy healthcare providers to recommend our products to their suffering patients.
Since I was dealing with "caring" people, I naturally chose to appeal to their hearts.
I invested heavily in emotional communication that tapped into their innate desire to help others.
And it failed miserably.
But I learned something important about the heart-head equation.
An insight that helped inform my future success.
Heart is not about emotional messaging.
Heart is about empathy.
It's surprisingly easy to confuse the two.
It took me awhile, but I was eventually able to feel our audience's deepest desires.
And visualize their motivating picture.
And once I did, the response was emotion.
But not joy or laughter.
Rather it was the feeling of being uniquely understood.
There's nothing more difficult in business, or in life, than empathy.
To look at our lives through other people's lives.
And nothing more important when creating belief.