Words are weird.

A Cappadocian saint, returning from theological debate in Greece, was grateful upon returning home that certain Greek heresies couldn’t even be expressed in his native language.1

I got exasperated with someone this week and said:

You don’t have enough free time to get it perfect. In Latin, ‘perfect’ just means done. So get me the finished draft so we can move this to the next phase.

It made me think of the saint. I have no idea if I’m right about this Latin word, but language and the world of ideas gives us strange abstract targets to aim for.

The modern meaning of perfect, ‘ideal’, isn’t a physical object. It’s not something you can point to. And it’s not a property you can measure when you’re finished. (i.e. ‘watertight’ – we have a falsifiable test for that one).

Then why are we perfectionists?

Were we perfectionists before we had the word or was the word invented to point at someone who persists in trying to improve something that’s fine?

Chicken & egg questions aside:

If you’ve crewed a sailboat you may know the word ‘pinching’, which means that small adjustments cost you speed and you can lose a race by making too many adjustments, especially in light winds.

It’s tempting to believe we can do better than our first draft. And of course we revise, test and correct our initial work. Once that revision is done, unless you have clear ideas for how to proceed, you have to release, or you’ll be chained to this project forever.

Deliver something, anything

An intangible skill I learned in my late 20s was to deliver something, anything, and not invest ego in making it good before dropping it in the envelope. Teams (a) make things better and (b) change them for arbitrary reasons, so don’t invest in delivering something that’s ‘finished’ unless you want to watch it get ‘un-finished’ by the tender ministrations of a kitchen full of cooks.

Even in the case of solo projects, like writing a book, some writers separate drafting from editing. Most recently I heard David McCullough (the pop history writer) describe his editing self as a different person whose job is to make crappy first drafts acceptable.2

People say ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. I prefer ‘the ego is the enemy of the done’. Having a measurable line for final product lets you move on to the next thing.

I know people who are horrified by the idea of measuring completion objectively (500 words) rather than via art or intuition. I don’t agree, at least not where deadlines are involved. We need to be very clear about what, when & how much we’re delivering or we’ll never hit those targets.

Lego instructions

Being able to say what you’re going to do and then do it, rather than figuring it out as you go along, is a big part of expertise. I spent this weekend with a pre-kindergarten relative whose brain is just starting to turn on. He can do every step of lego assembly by himself but can’t chain the steps together on his own yet, and knows that and asks for help. This sounds absurd, but I think it’s normal: the only help he needs is a 5-minute reminder to turn the page.

People talk about executive functioning like it’s a general thing, but I’m just as helpless as my nephew when digging into a new codebase or project. Spending all your energy on details means having no attention left over to plan. Each problem you solve becomes an all-consuming distraction.

Software estimation

I’ve experienced the tug of war between perfection and deliverability (deliverance?) directly in software estimation. It’s hard to see more than a week out because anything that takes more than a week to build involves R&D (or at least some tuning).

You’ve probably heard the line ‘no plan of action survives first contact with the enemy’ but I just read the whole quote and really like it:

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon’s saying: “I have never had a plan of operations.”

Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

(That’s Helmut von Moltke, a military leader in 19th-century germany.)

Mike Tyson said it even more concisely:

Everyone has a fight plan til they get punched in the face.

To me that means we should plan to do as little as possible to win. Not because we’re lazy, but because our eyes are bigger than our stomachs when it comes to planning for the future. Setting conservative goals that can be achieved under difficult condition is as big a factor in success as setting smart goals.

Notes

  1. It’s p3 of WB Stanford / The Ulysses Theme. ‘St. Basil of Cappadocia rejoiced, it is said, because his native Cappadocian tongue was too crude to express some of the abstruser Greek heresies.’ Stanford didn’t footnote and I’ve had no luck finding a second source for this, but it’s a cool line. 

  2. David McCullough C-Span open phones circa 6:50