Thursday, October 25, 2018

TTT #28 We Should Never Let the Good Become an Enemy of the Best

Not long after June and I married in 1957, I remember having the following words posted above my desk in our two-room apartment: “Don’t let the good become the enemy of the best.” I still think those are good and important words.
Seeking the Best
John Wesley, the outstanding 18th century British Christian, sought to live by the compelling slogan: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Those words certainly call people to positive action toward being and doing the best they possibly can rather than being complacent. Just because we are doing something good, that doesn’t mean we are doing all we should be doing.
The good becomes an enemy of the best whenever engaging in some good activity becomes an excuse for not doing more when that is possible. Similarly, the good becomes an enemy of the best when making contributions to some good cause becomes an excuse for not giving more when we are able to do that. 
On the Other Hand
I first heard the words “Don’t let the good become an enemy of the best” in the 1950s, but I don’t remember hearing this balancing statement until around 2010: “Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.”
Perhaps I was so early and so long influenced by the wisdom of the former warning that I sometimes (or many times) made the mistake the latter statement warns against.
Sometimes I have been called a perfectionist—although I insist that I am not a perfectionist, I just want things to be done right! But my desire to do things right, or as nearly perfect as possible, has sometimes kept me from doing much of anything at all.
As always, the goal is seeking balance or a position in the middle, between the extremes. Satisfaction with the good can, indeed, be an enemy of the best. But preoccupation with being or doing the best can also, certainly, keep one from doing good.
Always striving for the best can lead to procrastination and to engaging in over-analysis that leads to paralysis. Both of those unhealthy characteristics, procrastination and over-analysis, are largely based on fear of falling short of the best.
So while maintaining that the good should never be an enemy of the best, we should, on the other hand, also never allow the best to be an enemy of the good. It certainly is counter-productive if our desire to do the best ends up keeping us from doing much good at all. 
Seeking the Best without Being a Perfectionist
Being or doing the best we possibly can without falling into the trap of perfectionism is the goal we should strive for.
Perfectionism is a debilitating psychological weakness, and my insistence that we should never allow the good to become an enemy of the best should not be interpreted in such a way as to foster perfectionism.
We need to take seriously the suggestions in books by clinical psychologists, such as Steven Hendlin’s When Good Enough is Never Enough: Escaping the Perfection Trap (1992) and Monica Ramirez Basco’s Never Good Enough: Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism (1999).
So this is the goal we should yearn for: never letting the good become an enemy of the best—but always seeking to be and to do the best without falling into debilitating perfectionism.

[Here is the link to the entire 28th chapter in Thirty True Things . . .]


  1. Wise words, Leroy. While I'm often settling for the good rather than the perfect, it's usually because I'm exhausted or out of time striving for perfection. I should read one of the books you cite. :-D

  2. Replies
    1. I have been the best at what I do, in the past. Now I have decided to strive toward being good. Other than Christ saying "Your shall be perfect", it seems the rest of the time there is praise for those who are good, faithful, and productive.

  3. Here are brief comments from an East Coast (U.S.) Thinking Friend:

    "Interesting post – when I first saw it, I had an initial jolt of thinking you intended to put it the other way, as I’m much more familiar with Best not being enemy of Good. (I googled the two phrases and it was about even.)"

    1. I don't know why it took me so long to hear (or to consider) the words "the best is the enemy of the good." I have just found that those words (translated from French) were written by Voltaire in 1770--and he was quoting an Italian proverb.

  4. Then there were comments by a local Thinking Friend, who began by mentioning the irony of seeing a mistake in the article and not knowing whether or not to point it out to me--but she did, and I much appreciate her for doing so as I was quickly able to make the correction on the blogsite. (As I said, I am not a perfectionist, I just want things done right!)

    Then she wrote these comments related to the content of the article:

    "When I am paralyzed by perfectionism or depressed by the knowledge that I'm allowing the 'good' to suffice at the expense of the better or best, I turn to Ecclesiastes, the book of the Bible that swims upstream and presumptively forgives me because, hey, all our human toiling is vanity, anyway, and it gives me hope that in time, in time, in time, I will get around to just the right action."

  5. Local Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen, who is the founder of a group known as Hatebusters, shares the following comments:

    "I prefer to act quickly all the time when hate is afoot. To wait causes those who do it to think either that we agree with them or we're afraid of them. Neither is true. Either makes them harder to beat."

    1. Ed, I much appreciate your action through the years as a Hatebuster. But it seems to me that hate is always afoot (somewhere) and I don't have the time or the energy (or the gumption) to act quickly all the time. But it is also in this regard that I am tempted, too often, to think that since I am doing something to combat hate that I am doing all that I need to do. The good, truly, can easily become an enemy of the best.

  6. I appreciate these brief words from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, who was born in 1931:

    "I like it, Leroy. It confirms what my life has taught me."

  7. Perfection is the enemy of the good (that's my motto):

    Leroy, the portion of your post regarding the dangers of perfectionism saved you from a scolding from me. I have found the dehabilitating aspects of perfection to be more of a problem than failure to do good.

    Asking if "I'm doing the best I can" may help clear my mind of complacency, but asking that question too often sounds like striving for perfection to me.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Clif. I know something about all the good you do, so I respect the motto you have adopted. But I still think that both mottoes are needed--and that the warning about the good being the enemy of the best continues to be important.

  8. Here are Thinking Friend Eric Dollard's comments--and in addition he also pointed out a factual (keyboarding) error, which I promptly corrected:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your wise advice.

    "I am something of a perfectionist and I can become angry with myself when I make mistakes--an everyday occurrence. It is important, however, to not let perfectionism become an obsession. Mistakes are an important part of life; they are unavoidable and we should learn from them."

    1. Thanks, Eric, for your comments -- and for pointing out my keyboarding error. What bothers me is not that I keyboarded in the wrong century (for John Wesley) but that I didn't catch that when proofreading the article. So what I have tried to learn (again!) from that mistake is that I need to proofread more diligently.

  9. In our home we have the posted motto, "Tell Perfectionism to leave and he'll take his best friend Procrastination with him." Thanks for the reinforcing thoughts. It is nice to know we can do our best and not have to be perfect about it. One of my favorite sayings which I fear my churches are getting tired of hearing is, "Sure, you cannot do everything, but are you doing everything you can?" If it is your best, who is to condemn? Just don't try to pretend your half-hearted attempt is the best you can do.