Is Being Best Good Enough?

By Puterbaugh, Dolores T. | USA TODAY, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Is Being Best Good Enough?


Puterbaugh, Dolores T., USA TODAY


IF YOU ARE old enough, you remember the saying, "The best is the enemy of the good," a quote from Voltaire, who was not especially cheerful, but neither was he particularly wrong--at least in this regard. The pursuit of the best, or the perfect, as it sometimes is rendered, stymies achieving and appreciating the good.

Consider, for example, the tendency to seek the best in any given situation. The availability, via the Internet, of an unbearable depth of information feeds the hunter-gatherer yearning for the best berries, tubers, and quail. Now the hunter-gatherer can be on an endless search for the best of some category or another, when the best is unnecessary and, perhaps, merely a matter of opinion. The idea that the best is unnecessary may be anathema to some, but it remains that the best often is not necessary--or even desirable.

One of my avocations is art. A drawing in graphite may take many, many hours. The rough sketches that precede that task are essential. The grade of paper optimal for a drawing that develops over many weekends' available hours snatched from various obligations is substantially better than the grade required when hashing out composition and other concerns. It might be nice to use very expensive paper for sketches, but it is not necessary and would not affect the quality of my preliminary sketches. On the other hand, a professional artist would discern significant differences between what I consider final-drawing paper and what an expert would use. The nuances that separate a heavy paper with a high rag content and low acidity might not elude me, but it undoubtedly would escape my limited capability to exploit the fine points. The same goes for sedentary people who spend exorbitant amounts on the right athletic shoes when the extent of their mileage is from the car to a building, and for people whose taste buds, burned out by tobacco, insist on only the best possible coffee.

The belief that we must find "the best" in any given category, or the best deal in some quest for product or service, often leads to a tremendous investment in hours of research, comparison shopping, and, I suspect, a certain degree of unhealthy preservation. Is it worth an extra 10 hours of research and time to save $100 on some product? If the 10 hours spent shopping are a form of recreation, it may have been a worthwhile investment. If, on the other hand, you find browsing through stores or haggling with salespeople enervating and aggravating, you are operating at a net loss. A good deal would have been better than the best deal. Contrary to advertising, the "right" jeans will not change your life or your butt; neither will the car you lease, or, in the long run, the extra $75 you saved by bullying a salesperson who wanted some kind of commission after putting up with your drama for hours.

There are internal dramas related to this dance between best and good. We all are familiar with the occasional relationship between procrastination and perfectionism. Indeed, many people like to credit their procrastination to perfectionism, thus displaying their inertia like a merit badge. They cannot help it that their standards are so much better than yours. If you really cared about that status report, or essay, or cleaning the garage, you would get caught up in a fugue state of overwhelm, so intoxicated with the idea that each step must be the right one that you create a miniature existential crisis out of organizing the tool bench. …

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