Perfect is the enemy of good

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This natural diamond crystal contains flaws. Flawless diamonds, which are rare, are called paragons.

"Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without."

— Confucius, attrib.[1]

Perfect is the enemy of good is an aphorism, an English variant of the older better is the enemy of good, presumably of proverbial Italian origin, which was popularized by Voltaire in French form. Alternative forms include the article "the", as in "the perfect is the enemy of the good", which more closely translate French (and earlier Italian), or more casually "[the] perfect is the enemy of [the] good enough". Similar sentiments occur in other phrases, including from English, and are all attested since circa 1600; the sentiment is presumably of traditional origin.


The phrase is found in Italian as Il meglio è nemico del bene (The best/better is enemy of the good), attested since 1603: Proverbi italiani (Italian Proverbs), by Orlando Pescetti (c. 1556 – c. 1624) (p. 30, p. 45).

The phrase was popularized by Voltaire. He first gives the saying (without attribution) in Italian (Il meglio è l'inimico del bene [note spelling difference: l'inimico instead of nemico for "[the] enemy") in the article "Art Dramatique" ("Dramatic Art", 1770) in the Dictionnaire philosophique (1770 edition).[2] It subsequently appeared in French form, Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien, a word-for-word translation of Voltaire's Italian form, in his moral poem, "La Bégueule", in Contes (Tales), 1772, which starts, ascribing it to an unnamed "Italian sage" or "wise Italian":[3]

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

(In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of good.)

This sentiment in English literature can be traced back to Shakespeare,[4] In his tragedy, King Lear (c. 1605), the Duke of Albany warns of "striving to better, oft we mar what's well" and in Sonnet 103:

Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?

Related concepts[edit]

The meaning of "The perfect is the enemy of the good" is that we might never complete a task if we have decided not to stop until it is perfect. In that sense, completing the project well ("the good") is made impossible by striving to complete it perfectly. Closely related is the Nirvana Fallacy, in which people never even begin an important task because they feel reaching perfection is too hard.

Earlier, Aristotle, Confucius and other classical philosophers propounded the related principle of the golden mean, which counsels against extremism in general.[5]

The Pareto principle or 80–20 rule is a 20th-century analogue. For example, it commonly takes 20% of the full time to complete 80% of a task, while to complete the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort.[6] Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient.

Watson-Watt, who developed early warning radar in Britain to counter the rapid growth of the Luftwaffe, propounded a "cult of the imperfect", which he described as, "Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes."[7]

Economist George Stigler says that "If you never miss a plane, you're spending too much time at the airport."[8][9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M.P. Singh (2005), Quote Unquote (A Handbook of Quotations), p. 223, ISBN 8183820085 
  2. ^ Susan Ratcliffe (2011), Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Oxford University Press, p. 389, ISBN 978-0199567072 
  3. ^ Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Allen W. Wood, Hugh Barr Nisbet (1991), Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge University Press, p. 447, ISBN 978-0521348881 
  4. ^ Robert Allen (2008), Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases, Penguin UK, pp. 242–243, ISBN 978-0140515114 
  5. ^ Tal Ben-Shahar (2009), The Pursuit of Perfect, McGraw Hill Professional, p. 113, ISBN 978-0-07-160882-4 
  6. ^ E. Gandevia, S. Breakspear (2009), Equip, Talent Generation, p. 30, ISBN 978-0980679304 
  7. ^ L Brown (1999), Technical and Military Imperatives: A Radar History of World War 2, p. 64, ISBN 9781420050660 
  8. ^ Bryan Caplan (May 20, 2010), If You Never Miss a Plane..., Library of Economics and Liberty 
  9. ^ Steven E. Landsburg (2008), More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, Simon and Schuster, p. 224, ISBN 9781416532224 

Further reading[edit]

  • Eric Johns (October 1988), "Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough", U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings: 37 
  • Robert Watson-Watt (1957), "The Cult of the Imperfect", Three Steps to Victory, Odhams, pp. 74–77