Perfect is the enemy of the good

July 28, 2013

“Perfect is the enemy of the good.”

I found myself saying that in two business meetings not long ago.  I am not certain where or when I had first heard that statement, nor what exactly stimulated my saying it.

What I meant to say at the time to my colleagues at the time was that once something is good and it works, it’s time to complete it, that attempting to achieve perfection can delay a project, an activity or an event so long that you can lose its timeliness.  And that perfection is sometimes not possible, so it can be fruitless to achieve it.

But where did the statement come from?  I had no idea.

According to Wikipedia, that not-100%-reliable-source that we tell our university students that they must never, ever quote, the phrase is commonly attributed to the French writer and philosopher    Voltaire  (also known as  François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778), whose poem  “La Bégueule” (1772) first lines read:

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

Which is translated as:

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

Related concepts are the “Pareto” principle or “80-20” rule and the “law of diminishing returns”.