For years, I’ve heard and seen the quotation “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
But this morning, I read a blog post by Lauren Bacon on imposter syndrome. (Which I may be suffering from if I tell you to stop reading this and go read that. But it’s a superb piece of writing and contains more insight than most entire self-help books. So stop reading this and go read that.)
And in that post, she quotes Voltaire:
“The best is the enemy of the good.” –Voltaire
Turns out that really is the quotation: the best, not the perfect. Here’s the original French:
Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.
Now, the way people usually quote Voltaire is still useful. It captures the law of diminishing returns, and suggests that, hey, sooner or later you have to just ship the damn thing, press “Publish” or make the site live, even if it doesn’t render perfectly in Internet Explorer 3.
But discovering what Voltaire really said kind of blew my mind — and speaks to something that Lauren gets at in many of her other posts and her coaching work. It’s our tendency to compare ourselves to others, especially those who excel in their field.
For the longest time, I let the fact that there are other, (much) better cartoonists out there keep me from cartooning. Then from showing anyone my cartoons. Then from posting them.
And even now, after I’ve had my cartoons appear in dozens of books, magazines and websites, I’m still haunted by the idea that there are better cartoonists out there, more worthy of people’s time and attention.
Not that this was what Voltaire was getting at. He was encouraging people to appreciate what they have, in a grass-is-always-greener kind of way. (That’s my read, anyway. YMMV.)
But part of appreciating what you have is appreciating what you can do on its own terms, without needing to compare it to what others can do. Yes, there are other cartoonists, writers, speakers, speechwriters, painters, and experts out there. But you’re the one who showed up here and now, and attendance, it turns out, is marked very highly.
Besides, we’d be a mighty poor civilization if only those who thought they were the best felt worthy of expressing themselves. (We’d also be dominated by pathological egomaniacs.)
The best doesn’t have to be the enemy of the good. It can be a spur, a teacher, an inspiration. It can even teach us that “better” and “best” sometimes aren’t very useful terms in fields marked by complexity, diversity and subjective experience.