Culture

Why practice rarely makes perfect

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A Bangladeshi surfer practices surfing in the Cox's Bazar sea beach, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 10, 2017.

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Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Mathematician Eugenia Cheng doesn’t believe much in perfectionism. Her philosophy: Why worry about something that’s unattainable?

“What is perfection?” Cheng muses. “I don’t think it exists, so I don’t think we can strive to achieve it.”

To clarify, when we talk about perfection, we’re talking about over-polishing work that is already really good. Like worrying about the fonts in your finished PowerPoint presentation, or doing some late-night proofreading of an essay that you’ve already edited 10 times.

Cheng, a scientist-in-residence at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, says that one of the main problems with striving for perfectionism is that, after a while, your diligent hard work levels off. Call it the law of diminishing returns.  

“The key is not just the outcome by itself, it’s the ratio of outcome to effort,” Cheng says. “If the amount of effort is small, and you get a really huge payoff, then sure. But at a certain point, the payoff starts getting less relative to the amount of effort. The best place to stop is once you start getting those diminishing returns.”

And you should figure that stopping point out sooner rather than later. If you don’t, your diligence might actually create more issues than it’s solving. Indeed, that paper you stayed up editing until 4 a.m. might have a few more mistakes than when you started. Tired, overworked eyes can’t pick up on everything.

So how do decide your minimum standards?

One solution is to lower them, at least during certain parts of a project. Cheng says when she’s writing or working, she just focuses on getting the first step done.

“I don’t get writer’s block [when writing a first draft] because I’m not trying to aim for perfection. I’m just aiming to get something down,” Cheng says. “I do the same thing with a colleague during research. We say we’re just going to do something. Anything. It’s the final stages [where] diminishing returns can be really tricky.”

But Cheng’s favorite solution comes from her nephew, who made a motivational video for his little brother as he was starting kindergarten.

“He said an amazingly wise thing. He said, ‘If you make a mistake don’t worry about being perfect. As long as you have fun and do your best, you did perfect!’” Cheng says.

Cheng thinks about this when she and her musical colleagues play at her music salon, the Liederstube.

“We have a really great ratio of outcome to effort because we make practically no effort whatsoever,” Cheng says. “The outcome is not perfect in the sense of playing all the right notes or being correct all the time, but in a way, it’s perfect because we did our best and we had fun.”

A version of this story originally aired on Innovation Hub.

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