The Perfectionist’s Dilemma: When is Good Enough Good Enough?


I wanted my newborn twins’ homecoming to be perfect. But four days after Jacob and Sophie were born, my husband Michael and I were permitted to bring our robust seven-pound son home while our daughter, a dainty four pounds, had to stay in the NICU for a few more days. With one baby in arms and one left behind, our return home was far from perfect. I would quickly learn, however, when perfection would be critical — and when good enough was good enough.

On our first night home with Jacob, we swaddled our son in blankets to protect him against the bitter January draft, and put him down in his bassinette. Michael and I fell into bed, clasped each other’s hands in fortitude against whatever the night might bring, and fell into a deep sleep.

Sniffle sniffle cough. Sniffle sniffle cough.

Less than an hour into our slumber, Jacob was awake and I was at his side. He looked up at me with his big hazel eyes, begging me for relief from his little stuffed nose. Wanting Michael to get his rest, I quietly lifted Jacob from his bassinette and carried him into the bathroom. I blasted the hot water from the shower, and clasped Jacob in my arms as steam filled the room. As the two of us grew damp, it grew clear that the steam treatment wasn’t good enough. Jacob needed medicine.

I used my free arm to dig around in the freshly stocked basket of baby medicine we had prepared. Baby Tylenol – check. Baby Advil – check. Baby Butt Paste – check. Where was the Baby Saline Nose Spray? Nowhere. Our perfect preparation hadn’t been good enough, and Jacob’s congestion was going from bad to worse. I would have to take extreme measures: I would have to wake up Michael.

“Honey…Michael…Michael!!!!” I nudged my husband awake with increasing urgency.

“Ugrm.” He responded with increasing resistance to being awake.

“Michael,” I persisted, with as much calm and clarity as I could muster as a newborn sniffled in my arms. “Jacob is congested and we don’t have saline nose drops. I need you to go out and get some now.”

Michael rolled over, shielding his eyes with his forearm from an imaginary ray of light, and offered his good enough back-up plan:

“Just use the contact lens solution. It’s the same thing.”

Contact lens solution? Up our new baby’s nose? Was he out of his mind?

Eye drops were not nose drops. Good enough was not good enough. This called for perfect.

With that, my mother lioness instincts kicked in, and through gritted teeth I muttered:

“Michael, if we damage this baby, they will not let us bring the second baby home. Now get up and get the nose drops!

He did, of course. Jacob was fine, and I chose not to turn my husband in to the authorities so that we could bring Sophie home four days later. Her timing was perfect: She came home the morning of her baby naming and her brother’s bris.

Over the past nine years, while dealing with diaper rash, tempering tantrums, and helping with Hebrew homework, I have often asked myself, “does this need to be perfect, or is good enough good enough?” As a coach, I ask my clients these questions about their work and life on a regular basis. In fact, I find that many clients come to coaching as self-diagnosed procrastinators, putting off important projects and ambitions for weeks, months or even years.

In many cases, we uncover that procrastination is masking perfectionism. When they don’t know how to do it (whatever “it” is) perfectly, they can’t get started, they can’t get finished, or both. Sound familiar?

It should. It’s an old refrain – really, really old. According to Pirkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

“Complete the work” can mean many things, from “get it done now” to “get it done right” to “get it done inexpensively” – and much more. For many of us, we’re not finished until it’s flawless, and even then, we’re still looking back for the couldas, wouldas, and shouldas. What does this relentless pursuit of perfection cost us? Money, time, energy, relationships, and attention diverted away from those things that really do need to be just right because the costs are too high to settle for good enough. Like what? Like when your emotional, physical, or financial safety and security are on the line.

Full disclosure: Last year, I was perusing a popular parenting magazine, when I came upon a column advising that, in a pinch, you could substitute saline eye drops for saline nose drops. I initially thought it was good enough that just I knew it. But then I realized that, in order to make it perfect, I needed to let Michael off the hook for 8 years of grief from me.

In the words of Voltaire, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In the words of Coach Deb, here are 10 questions to think about as you consider whether good enough is good enough for your next undertaking:

1. What do you want?
2. What’s at stake here?
3. What would “perfect” look like?
4. What would “good enough” look like?
5. What are the costs/benefits between “good enough” and “perfect”?
6. Who else has a say or stake in this?
7. What really matters most?
8. What can you let go of?
9. How will you know when you’re done?
10. What will it take to get started?

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