Perfection Paralysis & The Good Enough Cure

imperfect and goodConfession: I am a bit of a perfectionist.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at my messy laundry room or the chaotic jumble that is the contents of my desk drawers, but I assure you that I am.

My perfectionism comes out with a vengeance when I am faced with decisions.  If I believe there is a right or best choice, I end up stressing and stewing as I attempt to figure out what that best option is.  My fear of failure kicks in, and, more often than not, I become paralyzed and end up making no choice.  This is the primary reason I avoid shopping for clothes unless my wardrobe is unwearable.  This is also why I have often opted out of going out with friends to a restaurant if I’ve never studied the menu before.  And yes, this avoidant, unproductive behavior is absolutely ridiculous.  …Or is it?

I recently read an excellent address given by Dr.Tyler J. Jarvis in which he introduced me to what is known as The Traveling Salesman Problem.  And it made my decision-making paralysis seem at least a little less ridiculous.  He described the problem as follows:

An important problem that arises in many settings is the Traveling Salesman Problem.

A traveler must visit many destinations to sell her goods or make her deliveries. Her problem is this: what route will be the fastest way to get to all the destinations? A poor choice could mean she travels many times farther than she would if she made a good choice.

Obviously this problem is important to companies like UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, Walmart, and Amazon. For example, according to Wired magazine, UPS has roughly 55,000 delivery trucks running each day. If each driver could choose a route that shaves just one mile off the daily trip, that would save the company $30 million each year.traveling salesman

And this problem is not only interesting to companies involved in delivery. The Traveling Salesman Problem also has applications in computer chip manufacturing, DNA sequencing, and many other areas.

Consider the situation for three destinations—call them A, B, and C. One of the possible routes our traveler could take to these three destinations would be to first go to city C, then to city B, then to city A, and then home again.

Altogether there are six possible routes in this situation, so to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem with three destinations, I need only compare the six routes and see which is shortest.

With four destinations I must check a bit more: twenty-four possible routes. I can do that. With five destinations we have 120 routes. I am too lazy to check all those, but it is not hard to write some computer code to do it for me. You may have noticed that the number of routes to check is growing rapidly. For ten destinations we have 3,628,800 possible routes to check—a lot, but not impossible.

For twenty destinations it grows to 2,432,902,008,176,640,000.

Dr. Jarvis goes on to detail how utterly impossible it would be for a computer to calculate every route and determine the fastest and best route.  That would take decades to for a computer to determine.  And that is with only twenty options!  He then says of the problem: “With all these problems, as long as we insist on getting a perfect answer—the one and only very best route—we are utterly paralyzed by the size and complexity of the problem. You could say we are paralyzed by perfection.”

YES!  THIS!  This is me when I try to make decisions!  And perhaps this is also you, or someone who you know and love.  When we fixate on finding the perfect answer, we set ourselves up for failure or forfeit.  And we end up feeling frustrated and inadequate.  So what can we do about it?

According to Dr. Jarvis, there are four major steps to apply:

  1. Admit and accept imperfection
  2. Work hard to get your best approximation
  3. Get up and act on your best approximation
  4. Do it again

The above recipe for overcoming perfection paralysis is rather simple and straightforward, at least in theory.  We start by recognizing that perfection isn’t possible.  Once we are able to accept imperfection (which sounds easier than it actually is!), we commit our efforts to finding a solution that is good enough.  We look for something that might work.  And we don’t approach it haphazardly.  Good enough is not giving up, nor is it settling.  And it certainly isn’t refraining from trying.  It is replacing an intolerance of imperfection with an achievable goal and a willingness to fail in the pursuit of it.

You can’t fall while you are paralyzed.  This is perfectionism’s appeal.  But you also can’t progress.  This is perfectionism’s curse.  Pursuing a best approximation allows progress and it also allows setbacks.  But that is okay because setbacks can help you learn and move forward.  I like to think of this as “failing forward”.  So we accept limits (Step 1), work hard to set goals (Step 2), work hard to pursue goals (Step 3), and if at first we don’t succeed, we try, try again (Step 4).  And eventually, we achieve something great.

Rather than that problematic saleman or delivery man spending all day in his vehicle calculating the fastest route, he can determine a good enough plan and get to work and accomplish far more than he would have otherwise.  The same goes for us.  Truly, when we abandon a pursuit of perfection, we are free to progress.  In the words of John Steinbeck: “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”