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For a number of reasons ranging from ‘mourning a loss’ to simply ‘feeling lazy’, I’ve not posted anything new to the site in a good while. That’s not to say I haven’t written, though. I’ve been working on a multi-part story for the past few weeks and will start rolling out the first half before the holidays, with the second half publishing throughout January. If you like long-form, you’re in for a real treat. It should be a good one.
But for now, there’s something else I felt compelled to write about. The purpose of theMuggo.com is to tell stories and learn lessons. Well, today I learned a lesson, so here’s a story.
Something unexpected happened about a month ago that had me reeling. I won’t go into specifics, but it had to do with a project I had been working on that abruptly ended, completely outside my control. I took it really hard and struggled immensely with my mental health for a few weeks because of it. Surrounded by my amazing wife and awesome friends, I was able to get through it without spiraling into a deep, dark depression, which I have somewhat of a history of doing.
Since then, I’ve purposefully been a little more aware of my emotional and mental states. I’ve been intentional to take note of the way I’m feeling or behaving at a given time, and I’ve been allowing myself time to digest the thoughts and actions in order to get to the bottom of what’s bothering me. I make this sound a hell of a lot easier than it is, of course. But it’s something I find myself needing every now and again to get re-calibrated to the truth of things. I tell myself a lot of negative stories when I’m not in a great mental state, so part of getting healthy is making sure I remember the truth about myself and others.
All that said…something happened at work today that sort of set off the warning alarms in my head. I was part of a meeting where I was assigned a few action items to follow up on. I work in a supply chain role, so the action items meant I needed to get a handle on our current stock situations at each of our plants before directing each of the planners to carry out some semi-complicated instructions.
This is a fairly common type of task in my line of work, but for whatever reason, I found myself struggling to carry it out. I poured over the data for almost an hour, making sure I knew exactly what needed to happen. I ran the reports I needed to run, I compiled the data that needed compiling, I even typed up the email and addressed it to all the people who either needed to carry out my instructions or needed to be aware of what was happening. But I couldn’t bring myself to send it.
Instead, I double-checked my numbers. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, of course. I grew up with a “measure twice, cut once” sort of mentality and it’s served me well in life. The problem was that when I went back through everything, I realized the numbers were just a little different the second time around. In the moment, I decided the difference wasn’t all that significant to the end goal, but I worried about what would happen if someone scrutinized my figures for more than a minute or so.
So I checked a third time. And guess what…the newest set of numbers didn’t match the first set. But they didn’t match the second set either. So there I was, 55 minutes into a data-crunching exercise where performing the same process gave me three different answers. To say I wasn’t confident in any of my conclusions would be quite the understatement.
Part of my frustration came from the fact that I couldn’t seem to lock in on the one correct answer. But I think the thing that really got to me was the fact I knew that if I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture, the difference in the data was damn near irrelevant. It might make the tiniest difference to the end goal, but even then, that difference would have been insignificant, and it certainly wouldn’t have justified the amount of time I’d spent chasing the perfect answer.
This made me anxious. At one point, I almost moved on to something else completely with the intent of waiting until someone else picked up the slack. I was so nervous about putting out the wrong information that I was considering hurting the rest of my team with my inaction.
Ultimately, I tweaked a couple of my numbers and hit the send button. A few minutes later, a response hit my inbox. “SCO all done. New PO placed on Mississippi for December delivery.” Mark had followed my instructions, sans scrutiny.
I’m still waiting on four other people to execute the rest of the instructions I sent out, but that one response was enough to quell my worried thoughts. And just like that, it was time to pack up for the day.
Allison and I stood in our kitchen while she finished eating her dinner. We had exchanged the usual daily small talk. How was your day? How’d the kids do at daycare? Did Julia nap? Did Hendrik obey this evening? Anything interesting happen at work? You know, the normal conversation prompts.
We both got quiet for a moment and she looked at me, knowing something was bothering me. By the look on her face, I knew that she knew something was bothering me, so I started talking. I don’t usually require much prompting to talk, if you can believe that.
I told her what happened and lamented how much it all bothered me. I was somewhat proud that I’d recognized it in real time (sometimes these sorts of things can eat at me for weeks before I realize what’s going on), but I also knew I needed to get to the root cause.
It wasn’t about the numbers being right or wrong, or how much I was off by. What mattered to me was that no one saw my numbers and started poking holes in them. Why? Because I didn’t want to look stupid. I didn’t want my coworkers to think I was incompetent. I didn’t want to be wrong. Being wrong would have meant I failed.
I thought about that for a few minutes and realized this happens a lot. I can find myself being so afraid of failure that I shut down completely. The truth of the matter, though, is that perfection, both in this specific situation and in most things in life, wasn’t necessary. Or even helpful. As I drove home, I thought about the rest of the to-do list that still needed to be tackled tomorrow because I took way too long on only one task today.
Okay. So I’ve written over 1,100 words already and still haven’t used the phrase that I’m sure some of you are simply dying to read. Fine. Enjoy this.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
Now that we got that out of our systems, let’s keep digesting this. That phrase is great, sure. There’s a lot of truth in it. But I think it comes up just a bit short in explaining what we’re truly trying to achieve. I imagine the large majority of us hold a belief that perfection is impossible, though there’s nothing wrong with striving for it. It’s just that we need to understand the point at which our pursuit of perfection is hurting more than it’s helping.
But more than that, I think we have to look a few layers deeper. In striving for perfection, what really are we trying to achieve? Acceptance? Praise? What are we trying to prove, and to whom? Is achieving perfection really going to give us what we’re wanting? In what kinds of situations do we spend too much time chasing perfection? What sorts of other things would make better use of our time?
I’ve been alive long enough to know that every skill or talent we possess has been made better through failure. I’m not really sure how you would go about learning anything without trying something and failing. Sure, you can read a book on how to cook a perfect steak, but until you actually heat up the pan and start searing, do you really know what you’re doing? Your skills must be refined if you want to get better at something, and that can’t happen without failure. Failure isn’t something to be feared, but embraced. I need to work on that. Do you?
I started this post talking about perfection and ended it talking about failure. One of those two things is really, really good for us. And the other is perfection. ♦