Perfect is the enemy of good
Perfect is the enemy of good is an aphorism, an English variant of the older better is the enemy of good, which was popularized by Voltaire in French form. Alternative forms include "the perfect is the enemy of the good", which more closely translate French and earlier Italian sayings, or "[the] perfect is the enemy of [the] good enough". Similar sentiments occur in other phrases, including from English, and are all attested since around 1600.
The phrase was popularized by Voltaire. He first used the saying in Italian in the article "Art Dramatique" in the 1770 edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique. It subsequently appeared in French in his moral poem, "La Bégueule", in Contes (Tales), 1772, which starts, ascribing it to an unnamed "Italian sage" or "wise Italian":
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.)
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
A widely accepted interpretation of "The perfect is the enemy of the good" is that one might never complete a task if one has decided not to stop until it is perfect: completing the project well 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.
The original meaning may have been that attempts to improve something may actually make it worse, similar to the sentiment expressed in the maxim "leave well enough alone". Neither the Shakespeare and Voltaire constructions suggest perfection, only improvement, lending support to this interpretation.
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. Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient.
Robert 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."
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- p. 30, p. 45
- Susan Ratcliffe (2011), Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Oxford University Press, p. 389, ISBN 978-0199567072
- 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
- Robert Allen (2008), Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases, Penguin UK, pp. 242–243, ISBN 978-0140515114
- Tal Ben-Shahar (2009), The Pursuit of Perfect, McGraw Hill Professional, p. 113, ISBN 978-0-07-160882-4
- E. Gandevia; S. Breakspear (2009), Equip, Talent Generation, p. 30, ISBN 978-0980679304
- L Brown (1999), Technical and Military Imperatives: A Radar History of World War 2, p. 64, ISBN 9781420050660
- 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