The perfect is the enemy of the good

One of my favorite quotes is from Voltaire. It’s original text is Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. This quote means:

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

There are several other variants of this quote, including the ever-popular “Perfect is the enemy of done.” which often shows up in leadership guidebooks, motivational tools, and other corporate propaganda. This quote has very special meaning for me because it sums up in the smallest amount of words possible the absolute core of the reason why so many writers fail. It describes the reason why it’s taken me ten years of waiting to finally start working seriously on my book.

As a writer, I am constantly plagued by feelings of self-loathing and I continually hurl insults at myself that one shouldn’t use against one’s own worst enemy. This is because the story that is in my head feels clean, pristine, and unmarred. When I allow this story to flow through my hands into the word processor, the end result is something that feels like a dirtying of the original story, as if I’ve somehow ruined it in the telling. This is perfectionism at its worst. The problem is that I feel that my narrative isn’t good enough, that my characters aren’t real enough, that my plot isn’t good enough, and I let that feeling paralyze me.

I sit in front of the word processor and I tell myself that what I’m about to write is going to suck. I tell myself that I’m a worthless, 2-bit hack who is just pretending to be a writer and then I slam the lid shut of my laptop and go off and do something else. You see, this is also a self-defense mechanism. If I am the one who tells me that I am a loser and a no-talent hack then I spare myself the inevitable vulnerability and crushing blow when someone else tells me that. The unwritten story cannot be criticized and if I am the source of the worst criticism, then I will not be hurt. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

At this point I’m at a crossroads. I can either continue to be sucked into the downward spiral or I can remember this quote,

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

And pull myself out of the pit of self-loathing. I can repeat that quote over and over again until I finally decide that it is more important to allow the story to escape my soul unhindered than it is to ensure that it is edited, pristine, and perfect upon release.

  • Erico

    I know a little bit about being one’s own worst critic. The good thing is no one can be harsher than you’ve already been, right?

    I, for one, want to read this book you’ve been cooking :)

    Keep on keeping on.