Not Screwing Up Can Be Better Than Perfect
Back in the earlier days of the space program, I was involved in the Apollo-Soyuz joint American-Russian orbital mission. The idea was that an American Apollo capsule and a Russian Soyuz capsule would join up in orbit as a symbol of the détente concept developing between the US and the USSR. There were numerous technical challenges, but the biggest hurdle to us working on the program was that the White House and the Kremlin were standing on our respective shoulders continuously whispering veiled threats that began, “Don’t screw up.” Hey, no pressure!
A Grim First Meeting
Anyway, my group and our Russian counterparts got together for our first meeting and things looked abysmally grim. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, then sat down across a conference table to get down to the nitty-gritty of what we had to do and how the hell we were going to get it done.
After about ten minutes, all of us American engineers were contemplating our future careers in the fast food industry as we had universally decided, “The Russians are complete idiots.”
Meanwhile, across the table the Russians were considering their own dire future as they similarly had determined, “These Americanisky’s are total morons.”
The conversation ground to a halt as we wondered how long before the program and all of us would be unceremoniously catapulted to the nearest dumpster.
Then one of the Russians said something and the tides turned…
Once Is Good Enough
The Russian engineer sitting across from me stood up and slowly swept his gaze around the table to catch all of our eyes and said, (You can supply your own fake Russian accent.)
“Ladies – ”
“Gentlemen – ”
“There is an old Russian proverb – ”
“Good enough is better than perfect.”
“We are not mathematicians – ”
“We don’t require perfection.”
“We are engineers – ”
“We only have to make this work – ”
He sat down and both sides took a deep breath and leaned back in our chairs for a minute thinking, “OK – maybe we CAN save our asses and make this damn thing work.” In time, it did work and we all avoided the engineering trash bins.
I’ve never forgotten that moment or forgotten Sergei’s (Сергέй) words. I have taken them to heart on many, many things. It was truly an epiphany.
Good enough IS better than perfect because perfection takes too much time, or costs too much, or is in fact impossible.
Between A Rock And A Hard Place
In engineering, you are always juggling between the scope, the cost, and the time constraints of a project. You always need more time – or need more money – or need to reduce the size of the project to meet the other constraints. Engineers spend their lives forever caught between rocks and hard places. Yet – somehow, you’ve got to make it happen. It’s never going to be perfect – it just has to work.
In the software business, there are always problems, always bugs, always more things you want and need to do. But – you get to a point where you have to ship – you take your last stable build and out the door it goes. Even with your very best efforts, how do you expect the unexpected? You can’t spend twenty years perfecting an operating system. (I’m not sure that could be done even in twenty years – or two hundred years.)
But even more importantly than just in engineering and science, good enough is better than perfect is something that influences and touches every aspect of our lives. If you can only be satisfied with the perfect spouse, you’ll be a bachelor for the next ten thousand years. You want perfect children – but that perfection will never be reached. You want the perfect job – but perfect jobs don’t exist. You want the perfect golf swing – good luck with that. You want your team to run the season’s board undefeated, untied, and unscored upon. Can’t happen even in a fantasy league.
Our lives are compromises – one compromise after another. Perfection always eludes us. If nothing but perfection will suffice, we’re going to spend our lives disappointed and miserable. To survive, we must constrain our perfectionist tendencies and learn to be satisfied with what we have, with what we can do, and most importantly, with who we are.
So – take the advice of my Russian friend to heart as I have –