Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Bad things happen when you misquote Voltaire

The contrary violet. (Photo by Symo0)

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

Literal translation: The best is the enemy of the good.

Variant: The better is the enemy of the good.

Or to put it the way you know, well, best: The perfect is the enemy of the good.

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard or uttered the phrase "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" at work, I'd have enough in the piggy bank to buy perfection flat out.

But until I started Googling the quote for this post, I hadn't known that 1) Voltaire originated it, 2) in French, 3) with the word 'best' rather than 'perfect.'

Ah word choice. Such a funny thing. With that one little swap I suddenly feel a whole lot better about eschewing perfection. Not that I'm ever accused of being a perfectionist -- I'm a big fan of getting things out the door -- but I'm often bothered by the feeling that I should want my life, my work, even my essence to be perfect.

Because the thing is ... I don't. It takes a lot of work and a lot of energy, and, frankly, it's unattainable anyway, so why waste the time and miss out on the fun stuff? I mean, even the word itself looks stuck-up -- all jabby serifs and sharp corners, meant for precise and supercilious pronunciation.

Best changes the matter, however. While perfect screams ideals, purity, and expectations, best sidles up beside you, offers some wine, and chats about what you think would be most productive for you.

Which makes me question how I feel about Voltaire's original quote. I can get behind a statement disregarding flawlessness; I can't so easily dismiss the pursuit of personal fulfillment. The best is a friend of the good. It takes what's strong and passionate and meaningful about us and amplifies it. It's good brought to ripest fruition.

So though we probably can't achieve best in every corner of our complex lives, who's to say we shouldn't at least try for one shining summit at whatever altitude we're built for? Best leaves up to us what perfect tries to squelch. I think it's worth a closer read.

Prayer #168: Good's Perfect Enemy

God, make me the best.

At what, I don't know.

Maybe just the best ... me?

That sounds good.

So whatever that means,

for me

for You

make me that.

Thanks.

You're the best.

Amen.

2 comments:

  1. I totally agree, Julia. I have seen so many projects never see the light of day because of the pursuit of some unattainable ideal. I also think some use the chase of perfection as an avoidance mechanism.

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  2. Actually, Votaire said he was quoting an Italian saying in his
    Dictionnaire Philosophique: 'Il meglio è
    l'inimico del bene'."

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