Waiting for Perfection While Losing a Perfect Opportunity

by Rob White

Since arriving in Davis, I have heard the saying “perfection is the enemy of good” or some variation on that theme many times. It has been used by city council members at council meetings, civic leaders during presentations and community members during blog posts.

But I would like to look at it from another angle… what if perfectionism causes the community to lose out on a perfectly good opportunity? Let me explain.

I was recently reading an article on the online version of Inc. Magazine and came across an article titled “How Perfectionism Can Hold You Back,” by Lolly Daskal.

Daskal asks the question “are you a perfectionist?” And I think many of us might smirk a little when reflecting on this idea personally. As she points out, “for many people it’s a point of pride.” But then Daskal makes the statement that perfectionism “may be keeping you from reaching your highest potential.”

She makes the case that by “constantly doing everything perfectly and perform[ing] everything flawlessly, you may think you’re being effective and efficient. But sometimes it’s the imperfect performances that demonstrate your greatest potential.”

Daskal goes on to describe eight reasons how “the drive for perfection can be your worst enemy.” She states that “when you’re perfect, you”…

1. Don’t take risks;
2. Insist on going by the book;
3. Not developing;
4. Can’t push the envelope;
5. Aren’t open to new ideas;
6. Cannot adapt to new situations;
7. Thrown by unexpected demands; and
8. Can’t adopt new strategies.

Though Daskal’s points are primarily focused on the detriments from personal perfectionism, I think we can all recognize how these same eight outcomes can be a detriment to our city by community-based perfectionism.

Currently, we are having public discussions on topics as varied as how to close the city’s budget shortfalls, fix and replace infrastructure, create new revenues, increase local job opportunities and ensure a bright future for Davisites. And in each of these topics there is a wide spectrum of opinions and views. Some views are obviously self-serving, some claim to be based on whole-systems thinking and some are genuinely trying to wrestle with a complex subject in an imperfect system.

What is certain is that no single outcome to these complex issues will make everyone ‘happy’. So it is equally important to note is that there really cannot be one perfect solution, because perfect depends on your personal views and values, and in the world of policy, is subjective at best.

So perhaps the Davis community is best served in not trying to be perfect, or waiting for a perfect outcome to any of these topics, but instead being creative and innovative enough to try multiple imperfect solutions that may result in a collective outcome that is more perfect than we may have realized possible.

Let’s take the example of a growing structural deficit for the city’s budget – even small actions now can have significant positive impacts in the future. If we encourage downtown revitalization and reuse, we most certainly can add to the city’s revenue base through increased property values and retail spending.

For many, these types of changes have (and will) positively enhance the community’s downtown experience. And most Davisites would probably agree that the downtown has gotten better over the last few decades as reinvestment and revitalization have occurred. Though no one project or activity was perfect in scope (nor universally acceptable), as a whole our downtown has increased in beauty through the implementation of broad-based amenities.

Using the downtown as a template, perhaps we should think about how we might approach our other community-wide discussion topics. Perhaps there is no perfect set of ordinances, project requirements or regulations that will result in perfect outcomes. Maybe we learn as a civilization by doing, then course-correcting as we discover the unintended consequences and amplifying the positive outcomes.

Because as Daskal points out, the most significant reason perfectionism is self-destructive comes down to the fact that “there is no such thing as perfect.” We can’t obtain what doesn’t really exist, but we can be flexible, creative, innovative and resilient as a community.

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are always welcome. My email is rwhite@cityofdavis.org if you choose to email me directly or you can follow me on Twitter @mrobertwhite.

About The Author

Rob White is the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Davis and was selected as a 2012 White House Champion of Change for Local Innovation. He serves as an ex-officio Board Member for techDAVIS (a local tech entrepreneur industry group), as an executive Board Member for the Innovate North State iHub, and as a Board Member for Hacker Lab and the California Network for Manufacturing Innovation. He is a candidate for the Doctorate in Policy, Planning and Development from the University of Southern California and has a Masters from USC in Planning and Development and a Bachelors of Science in Geology from Chico State.

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19 Comments

  1. Anon

    “Perhaps there is no perfect set of ordinances, project requirements or regulations that will result in perfect outcomes. Maybe we learn as a civilization by doing, then course-correcting as we discover the unintended consequences and amplifying the positive outcomes.”

    I would agree there are no perfect set of ordinances, but there are planning principles and common sense that should be followed. However, what is going on in Davis goes way beyond mere “perfectionism”. There is an attempt by small vocal groups with an agenda to sway decision makers towards extreme positions, e.g. no surface water project, no new residential housing, no big box retail, no new innovation parks, by threatening referendums, lawsuits, or showing up en masse to City Council or commission meetings, when it gets down to crunch time. If the vast silent majority want an innovation park, assuming such an idea is reasonable and fiscally pencils out, they had better be willing to speak up loud and clear.

    “the most significant reason perfectionism is self-destructive comes down to the fact that “there is no such thing as perfect.” We can’t obtain what doesn’t really exist, but we can be flexible, creative, innovative and resilient as a community.”

    I would agree with this sentiment whole-heartedly. However, we have a segment of the community who doesn’t “play fair”. So it is going to take more than flexibility, creativity, innovation and resiliency to get an innovation park built. It is going to take the community coming together for the common good, being willing to accept compromises for the benefit of all, speaking up for what is right, en masse, to show that it is what the majority of citizens want.

    1. Frankly

      It is going to take the community coming together for the common good, being willing to accept compromises for the benefit of all, speaking up for what is right, en masse, to show that it is what the majority of citizens want.

      Well said.

  2. Frankly

    Another thought-provoking article by Rob White.

    I am often guilty of categorizing people into groups and an then diagnose what I believe to be problematic tendencies of the individuals within the group. I do this understanding that I will cause anger and resentment in some people, but frankly, because I am, when we talk about community behavior and tendencies, without new personal introspection and perspective, the community will just keep repeating the same mistakes.

    I have frequently heard the complaint that people will oppose ideas just because they resent being challenged this way.

    Which, if you think about it, is a perfect testament to the very point… that someone would dismiss the actual facts and just respond emotionally.

    Here is my question/challenge… I see a lot of social and economic problems and not a lot of progress solving those problems. And I think the reason that we do not see a lot of progress solving the problems is that we walk on so many eggshells to prevent upsetting people. We have to pick a careful tone, and be respectful of people and ideas that are frankly lacking in merit. We have to compromise and concede to extremes. We have to hold the hand of and walk the change-averse through an exhausting marathon of reassurance.

    But maybe this is all necessary. Maybe this is the best we are every going to do.

    But if so, I think we are doomed.

    My belief is that we have slid down too far and continue to slide further into a situation where we can’t do the things we need to. We can’t do the things we need to do because we have gone too far transforming from a representative government to a direct democracy. And this shift has been a natural response to a lowering of leadership quality in our representation.

    The solution to improving the quality of our representative leadership is the same as the solution to improve our ability to get things done in a direct democracy fashion… that is to develop better objective analysis and decision-making skills within the general population.

    I suppose one way to frame this is to agree that we are just seeing a pursuit of perfection. I think it is part of the problem, but another part of the problem is extreme meddling by those lacking knowledge and skills development… and just the knowledge and skills understanding our own invidual emotional triggers and how they sub-optimize decision processes is a big part.

    1. Alan Miller

      “just the knowledge and skills understanding our own individual emotional triggers and how they sub-optimize decision processes”

      I assume you don’t live in a glass house, Frank Lee. #wink#

      “And this shift has been a natural response to a lowering of leadership quality in our representation. ”

      Dan, Rochelle, Brett, Lucas & Robb ??? — or were you referring to someone else?

      1. Frankly

        I think it remains to be seen if our leadership quality has improved. So far I am giving them a C+. What have they accomplished?

        I do get emotional… frustrated and heated that we are not accomplishing anything of purpose.

        1. Alan Miller

          I’m still dancing a jig every time I drive or bike down 5th Street, or cross it on foot. Of course that should have been done 20 years ago, though I am finally getting over that now that it IS.

        2. Frankly

          I work in small business lending. The key to demonstrating top client satisfaction is to survey borrowers only after they get their money. Even if it takes 20 years, many of them would report satisfaction. We could probably beat them and yell at their kids, and they would still report satisfaction after they get their money.

          But then we shouldn’t really use those surveys to make a case that we are doing a good job.

  3. Mark West

    One manifestation of our community’s particular form of perfection hunting is our tendency to focus all of our efforts on one step or method in isolation. Instead of devising a comprehensive plan to solve our fiscal problems for example, with a package of new taxes, expense cuts and new investments all tied together, we approach each step individually and waste time arguing about whether or not that one step will be sufficient.

    We also see this in our discussions on economic development. As Michael Bisch has pointed out several times, the only thing we are talking about as a community are innovation parks, while we ignore the many smaller steps that we can implement today that in combination will have a significant positive impact. This same approach is demonstrated further just within the business park discussion with the argument that we should select one perfect park and wait several years to see the fiscal impact before we consider building another.

    It should have been obvious to everyone that we were not going to solve our sales tax leakage problem by allowing Target to open up in town. Yet that is the fight that we had (a fight that many choose to continue today). What we needed instead was to find room for 50-100 new shops ranging in size from a few hundred square feet up to and including a new Target or two. Similarly, we don’t just need room for one more Mori Seki or Schilling Robotics, we need space for 50-500 new companies, some of which will grow to become the next Mori Seki or Schilling Robotics.

    We won’t solve our problems by looking for the one perfect leap guaranteed to get us to our destination. We need the combination of hundreds or thousands of little, medium and big steps that work together to reach the goal. In retrospect, some of those steps will appear to have gone in the wrong direction, but it is doubtful that any of us could have accurately predicted in advance which will be the right steps and which will be wrong. What we should know however is that if we continue to waste our time arguing about each individual step as if it were the most critical one on the path, we will never get anywhere.

    1. Alan Miller

      “if we continue to waste our time arguing about each individual step as if it were the most critical one on the path, we will never get anywhere.”

      Good luck with that.

    2. Anon

      “We won’t solve our problems by looking for the one perfect leap guaranteed to get us to our destination. We need the combination of hundreds or thousands of little, medium and big steps that work together to reach the goal.”

      Well said!

  4. Anon

    Frankly: “…another part of the problem is extreme meddling by those lacking knowledge and skills development…”

    Absolutely, and usually because those same people have a particular agenda they are pushing, the facts be da_ned!

    1. Alan Miller

      I find it endlessly entertaining that only people who disagree with ones opinion have “an agenda”. Applies to everyone. Except those that say others have an agenda. They are just blind.

      1. Frankly

        I don’t think Anon was referring to “everyone”… only some.

        But I do believe Jonathan Haidt to be accurate:

        To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.

        The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.

        To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.

  5. wdf1

    Frankly, quoting an article: ‘Maximizers’ Check All Options, ‘Satisficers’ Make the Best Decision Quickly: Guess Who’s Happier

    and also: I am often guilty of categorizing people into groups and an then diagnose what I believe to be problematic tendencies of the individuals within the group.

    In the spirit of irony, I would like to take this moment to honor Robert Benchley, American humorist of the early 1900’s, who proposed the Law of Distinction:

    There are two kinds of people in the world, those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.

    Which one are you?

    1. Frankly

      Hey… I didn’t write the article.

      But I think there are generally two kinds of people in the world: those that dislike being labeled as one, and those proud of it.

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