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Winning at Working


Nan Russell

Aug 18, 2016

Progress Over Perfection

In the late 17th-century, Lord Chesterfield, an English writer and politician, wrote to his son, "Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well." Over three hundred years later, we still heed this advice from the fourth Earl of Chesterfield. Yet, doing something well doesn't mean doing it perfectly. The 21st-century workplace requires more than doing something well.

Today's adage should be: "Whatever is worth doing, is worth doing." That's the secret people who are winning at working know. It's action, not inaction, practice not theory, and progress not perfection that builds success, achieves results, and actualizes dreams.

After hearing me speak at a conference, a young woman sought me out. She was struggling with this concept of progress over perfection and asked for advice. "How do you do it?" she asked. "How do you accept something as finished when you know it could be better?" She explained she was managing an over budget project months past due and her boss's displeasure was clear. Even so she struggled. "If only I had more time to do it right," she pined.

There's a difference between doing your best under the circumstances, and trying to achieve perfection. As a person who has perfectionist leanings at times, I understand doing things well. There's always more you can do to make it better, grandeur, niftier; always more to add, augment, or debug; more ideas, more tweaking, more revisions to make it close to the illusionary perfect status. But in order to survive and thrive in today's workplace progress surpasses perfection.

If a toddler didn't walk until she could walk perfectly; a musician didn't play until he was accepted by the Philharmonic; or an inventor didn't invent until she had a multimillion dollar product, we'd think it crazy. It's no crazier for us. Whatever our work, we must move it forward to get results. Our work is a work in progress; so are we.

People who are winning at working test and pilot and risk and even fail sometimes. They evolve a process, an idea or a product bit by bit, laying elements to build a strong foundation. Perfect is not the goal. Results and progress are. As the saying goes, "Better is the enemy of done."

You see, sometimes the message is more important than the vehicle that delivers it; the idea more important than the packaging, the work-around more important than the ultimate fix to the problem. Of course, sometimes it's not. But that's a judgment call.

So unlike many who spend their days trying to make something perfect, people who are winning at working spend their days making progress. Making progress, any progress, fuels their motivation, creativity, and energy. It builds their momentum. And it ignites their results. Want to be winning at working? Keep making progress.

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