The Essay: Don’t Let the Best Be the Enemy of the Good

Painting In the story of João and Ana the characters demonstrate two very different approaches to learning a foreign language.  João is driven by a quest for perfection but is hesitant to use his French in its nascent, flawed state; Ana, on the other hand, seems to care only about communicating and uses French as she knows how, as mangled as it may be. During the course of their time in Paris, Ana experiences a great deal of growth while João remains paralyzed by his insecurities. Ironically, the character who accepted her imperfections (knowingly or not) ultimately arrived at a much greater command of the language. The story illustrates a curious paradox- an obsession with perfection can be the enemy of real progress!

Anyone who has lived abroad while learning a foreign language can probably identify with either João or Ana, or both. It is nearly impossible not to make mistakes in grammar, syntax or pronunciation while learning a new language and while it is obviously important to correct our mistakes, no betterment can be achieved without speaking and practice. To master a foreign language we must strive for excellence while at the same time accepting our own imperfections and trying to speak. We may think that we are making fools of ourselves, but the real fool is the language learner who is too timid to try.

Postponing an action until the “perfect” moment arrives is something that we all have done at one moment of another. Most of us have also had the experience of finding that the longer we wait the more difficult things become. “It’s been 3 months since I’ve called Grandma, I absolutely have to call her but I’ll wait until tomorrow, it’s too late now… It’s too early in the morning, maybe she’s still sleeping, I’ll call her after work… I only have half-an-hour now, maybe I should call on the weekend, when I have more time… She likes to watch TV on Saturday evenings, I wouldn’t want to interrupt…” Before long 3 months have become 4 and the situation just gets worse and worse. Probably the perfect moment that we are waiting for will never come and if we are smart we realize that an imperfect action is better than no action at all.

A songwriter will usually have at least some small part of the melody or the lyrics which he is not completely satisfied with but which he must accept for the greater good of the song as a whole. An engineer designs a bridge as best as she can but knows that there is always some situation- as extreme as it may be- in which it will fail to function. A painter is forced at some point to step back from his work and say “it’s not perfect but I like it” or he risks spending the rest of his life covering the same canvas with ever thickening layers of paint. The song, the bridge, and the painting would never be sang, crossed, and admired by the greater public if their artists were not willing at some point to let some small imperfections go.

What actions are we putting off for eternity while we wait for the right moment? What projects are we hiding in the workshop, unsatisfied with their imperfection? Waiting for perfection, how much good work are we forsaking? The adventure of learning and growth starts with the first step, and no amount of immobile preparation can make the first step so long as to make up for all of the progress that we could have made while we were waiting.

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