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Is ‘good enough’ the ultimate enemy of great?

A sports and performance psychologist decodes the human element of high performance in every sphere of life

Sahen Gupta | Published 15.11.23, 09:04 PM
‘The pursuit of perfection is not about never making a mistake — it is about pushing the boundaries of achievement despite making mistakes’

‘The pursuit of perfection is not about never making a mistake — it is about pushing the boundaries of achievement despite making mistakes’

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“Do more” is something we hear often. There’s something else we often see. It is “good enough”. This is sneakier. We usually do not say it, but it comes through in our actions and the output.

Consider SpaceX (not talking about Elon Musk’s divisive tactics with Twitter-turned-X, but rather the company). SpaceX was born out of a mission to take humans to Mars, but their first step was to build a reusable rocket. They failed (multiple times). Some were spectacular blowouts resulting in millions of dollars going up in flames. But they cracked the formula with Falcon 9, which made space travel cheaper. They might have stopped there, saying, “it’s good enough”. They did not. Hence, they have gone on since then to perfect the rocket and its re-entry.

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We see the same in sport and business, and even in music and performing arts. For any big project, the relentless pursuit of perfection is often a must. Athletes spend years honing their skills before they can compete and redefine what is possible. Entrepreneurs make thousands of mistakes on their way to becoming an overnight success. Musicians and dancers practise to a frenzy, till the ideal becomes the real. In all of these, the timescales involved range from months to years. And there is another common thing: the pursuit of perfection is not about never making a mistake — it is about pushing the boundaries of achievement despite making mistakes.

Perfectionism and its types

In human performance, there are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionism involves setting realistic standards and an acceptance when there is a failure to achieve these standards. For example, you say I will do this very difficult thing in 100 days, when most would take 120 days, but it’s okay if I do it in 110 days. This type of perfectionism is good.

On the other hand, there is maladaptive perfectionism. It makes us set unrealistic standards, overreact with negative emotions, become anxious due to a need to always be in control. This type of perfectionism usually gets in the way of performance since it has a staunch disregard for anything new or different. For example, a manager says, “We have always done it this way and it must be done perfectly,” even though the ingredients required to do so are not available.

‘In human performance, there are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive’

‘In human performance, there are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive’

For the big things, the pursuit of perfection is a must. It is what drives everyone along. It is the tide that raises all ships. But having a concrete and inflexible idea about the route to get there inhibits us. The pursuit of perfection involves an acceptance that we might fail, but despite that we will try and innovate. Only accepting one definition of perfection prevents us from trying new things. Let’s look at two stories.

The first story starts in 1937 at Bikaner in Rajasthan. It involves Shivkisan Agrawal’s family’s sweet and namkeen shop, a dream and a commitment to finding perfection through innovation. Eighty years later, Haldiram’s is a billion-dollar company. The company took local Indian roadside snacks and sweets across India and even parts of the world through innovation in manufacturing (they designed and built machines), packaging (the first in the country to vacuum-pack snacks) and retail (opened large-scale consumer facing stores where the family could spend time).

Closer to Kolkata, Krishna Chandra Das made a name in 1930s Kolkata by inventing rosomalai and over the next few years, brought his passion for engineering to his sweet shop to modernise the Bengali sweet industry. The red, vacuum-sealed KC Das Rossogolla followed and has since taken over the country and world. I have seen such a tin being sold in South America, in a small cake shop in Georgetown, Guyana.

The red, vacuum-sealed KC Das Rossogolla has taken over the country and world

The red, vacuum-sealed KC Das Rossogolla has taken over the country and world

Good enough, do we care about that?

Yes, we do, and we really need to understand why. In the pursuit of perfection, we often think of only one outcome — the ‘perfect’ outcome. But in life, as in many big projects, there are moving goalposts. When there are moving goalposts, having a fixed definition of perfection is like hitting a constantly shifting target in archery. Just as you want to release an arrow, the target slides, making it impossible to hit the bullseye. Having a concrete definition of perfection forces you to constantly adjust your aim, never allowing you to fully reach your objective.

But understanding what is ‘good enough’ allows us to set a point of acceptance that can work even though it may not be the absolute perfect version. This gives us a working platform. This is particularly important when we have goals with many moving parts. We need to think like an athlete trying to win an Olympic gold. It is a three-year process. So there will be many things that do not adhere to the ‘perfect’ plan. An understanding of ‘good enough’ at each step of the way allows us to know what more needs to be done, and what good things have been achieved.

Keep chasing the perfect, but with multiple good enoughs behind you. The end result will be great more often than not.

Dr Sahen Guptais a Kolkata-born, India- and UK-based psychologist who divides his time between mental health support and high-performance coaching. As the founder of Discovery Sport & Performance Lab, he works not only with Olympians and other top-level sportspersons, but also with CEOs and other professionals striving for excellence. Dr Gupta’s mission is to simplify complexities of the mind into actionable and simple ‘doables’ that allow individuals to be mentally fit.

Last updated on 15.11.23, 09:06 PM
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