Some sayings are about as useful as the breath used to say them. (Including this one.)

Not all, of course. Whether you call them sayings, slogans, aphorisms, axioms, maxims, proverbs, words of wisdom, epigrams, precepts, platitudes, catchphrases, truisms, or (sometimes) clichés, there are many that are interesting, funny, and occasionally valuable.

The master was Ben Franklin, who wrote hundreds of memorable sayings as editor of Poor Richard’s Almanack.

But more often than not they are lame brained (“Do or do not. There is no try.”), outdated (“Children should be seen and not heard.”), or just plain silly (“A day without sunshine is like night”).

But there is one which, to my mind, is priceless: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

It is, on its face, a curious statement, almost counterintuitive, even an invitation to mediocrity. Why try for anything less than perfection? We are raised to strive for supremacy, to aim for mastery. We are told to “shoot for the stars” and “never settle for less than the best,” which to a sensitive soul might sound an awful lot like being asked to be faultless. Athletes are relentlessly exhorted to win at almost any cost. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” said UCLA football coach Red Sanders.

Yet perfection is by most measures unattainable, and the pursuit of it can be toxic. Going all out, when done without proper supervision and training, can lead to all sorts of serious problems, injuries, and frustrations.

Furthermore, many people will fail to undertake something – a project, a hobby, an objective – because they are convinced they can never “master” it to perfection.
But mastery is rarely the point. The way to pursue any thing – whether a new language, a new musical instrument, or a new business – is simply to start, and worry about competence and capability later.

Take Winston Churchill. In need of an emotional outlet after his devastating dismissal as head of the British Admiralty in 1915, he took up oil painting. He started by setting up a canvas in the garden of his rented house in Surrey. Unsure what to do or how to start, he nervously dabbed a bit of blue sky “the size of a bean.”

“My hand,” he wrote, “seemed arrested by a silent veto.” He was, in other words, stuck, unsure about his capabilities, stymied by the heavy hand of perfection.
Just then a friend arrived. Hazel Lavery was the wife of the painter Sir John Lavery and a well-known artist herself. Sizing up Churchill’s modest effort and undisguised anxiety, she grabbed the paintbrush and slapped on a thick blue sky.
Lady Lavery must have been quite the role model. Two years ago a Churchill painting fetched $2.8 million at auction.

The point is, good can be always get better, but perfect can never be more perfect.
How is that for a new saying!

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...