The Danger of Perfect
I’ve had a few conversations recently that made me think about just how hard it is for many people to put at risk something “good” in hopes of making it “great”. Good is comfortable. Good feels secure. Once you reach a good situation, the path of least resistance is usually just to stay there. This idea of good being the enemy of great has been around for hundreds of years in psychology and philosophy. I do agree that good can be the enemy of great, and see it frequently in my professional and personal life, but what I want to discuss today is the danger of taking it too far.
While being comfortable with good may prevent many from being great, striving for unrealistic perfection can destroy greatness. It’s certainly not easy to know at what point a job, relationship, house, investment, etc, is great and no longer just merely good or satisfactory. However, I’ve found myself cautioning a number of clients about their unending search for greener pastures. Here are two recent examples.
The first is a young physician who was thoroughly enjoying her job and life post-residency. However, she was getting pressured by a few former colleagues and mentors to apply for a three year fellowship. I spoke with her and she told me about all the great aspects of her current job: making an immediate and positive impact on her patients' lives, flexible work schedule, not having to take work home with her, and enough income to support her family's financial strategy. All of our conversations post-residency had been upbeat and cheerful which was great to see because residency was hard on her. Her work/life balance sounded pretty great to me and three years of fellowship would drastically change that. Her work load would increase, family time would be limited, and she wouldn’t be able to travel as much as she wanted to.
So why was she considering this? Three reasons: peer/mentor pressure, higher income after fellowship, and a potentially more academically challenging job. The last one is worthwhile if she deems the challenges of fellowship are worth it and she is positive she will like working in that specialty more than her current job (she wasn’t), but I challenged her on the first two reasons.
She had plenty of income for her financial strategy to work just fine so the higher income wasn’t needed, and committing to a three year fellowship because other people wanted her to do it is a recipe for regret. I want to be very clear that I am not anti-fellowship. I just believed she was already in a really “great” situation and the idea of potentially getting closer to “perfect” (which she was initially thinking of as more respect from colleagues and earning a higher income) was pushing her to put all her other values at risk.
My second example is a gentleman I know who spends waaayyyyyyy too much time analyzing his investment portfolio. Unless you have a time machine, it is impossible to know whether you have the “perfect” investment portfolio. Despite this fact, I see the desire to reach perfection ruin many investment plans that I would consider to be great. The constant urge to “tinker” by adjusting the asset class allocation or replacing one fund with another is a constant battle that investors must fight. One of the hardest things for many investors is to do nothing. It feels uncomfortable to do nothing. It feels lazy to do nothing. However, with close to 10,000 different mutual funds existing in just the United States alone, the sooner you make peace with the reality that you are not going to be in first place the sooner you can spend your time on a more useful and important topic.
There is nothing wrong with striving for greatness and taking risks to achieve it, but we also must be bluntly honest with ourselves about whether our desire for perfection is pushing us to never feel any sort of contentment or satisfaction with our current situation. Growth is good. Having higher aspirations can be healthy. But I strongly believe that it is not a weakness of personality to acknowledge that perfection is never an achievable outcome and the pursuit can be costly.