I spend a lot of time commuting. During that commute, I listen to technical podcasts and lots of different leadership and career oriented audio books. One of the topics that experts seem to have differing opinions on is defining what is good enough. I’ve heard many refer to Nike’s ad campaign, Just Do It, and make the case to jump right into something. Others talk about elevating the quality of everything done to well beyond that of everyone else. This article discusses the balance that must happen between the two extremes, perfection and recklessness.
So how good do you need to be to work on a network, write a blog, manage a project or write some code? I think that all depends on several factors. If you are doing brain surgery, or working on a network that is responsible for a critical medical procedure, maybe you need to be as close to perfect as possible. Some critical networks and systems can cause substantial financial losses when they are down. An unsecured networked system creates a potential leakage of critical information or trade secrets. In many cases though, a task may carry less risks and should be dealt with accordingly. In those cases, it is important not to make perfection to be the enemy of good.
Striving for Perfection
Striving for perfection in each and every menial task can be exhausting. If I held that standard for my blog, I’d probably still be working on the first PacketU.com article. I’m at least as far from perfect as anyone. Even with imperfection, I push myself to go forward, to learn from mistakes, and to share my experiences with others.
I’ve written plenty of articles with plenty of typographical and grammatical errors. Some of you have probably seen them but didn’t want to call me out on it. I failed various technical exams, including my first attempt at the CCIE Security lab. I’ve made mistakes that have caused network outages and I’ve lost my cool with consultants that needed consulting themselves. However, I’m gainfully employed and I still have peers that read my imperfect articles. So what gives?
Perfection is an Illusion
This illusion of perfection can be one of the most paralyzing aspects of an otherwise great engineer’s psyche. Those thinking that all of their friends and coworkers are perfect become hesitant to attempt new things for fear of failure and retribution. This can be a hinderance to their productivity and even their career. The friends they think are perfect, aren’t—I promise.
There is another extreme. This extreme is recklessness and is even more dangerous. Those who pursue tasks in which they are completely incompetent will quickly find themselves in dire situations. Those taking unnecessary, unmitigated, or not well understood risks, may cause undue hardship for themselves and others. With today’s expanding use of technology, they could even be risking the physical well-being of others. While this is a more dangerous extreme, it is also more obvious to those having been around this industry for a while.
There is a balance that we need to strive for. This balance is somewhere between recklessness and perfection. Moreover the balance is different for different circumstances. Our ability to determine when is go time and when we need to spend more time in research or the lab is important. This is a soft skill that is important to our technical careers. While trying to reach this balance, here are some questions that might be good to think about.
- What is the worst that can happen?
- Is there someone else that would be better suited for this?
- Would it be better to co-pilot this with someone?
- Am I just worried about being embarrassed?
While thinking through this, it is sort of a process of personal risk management. For those just afraid of being embarrassed, I get it. But be aware, that is likely just the introversion that is a characteristic found in many technical people. If something really bad can happen, that is a real reason to stop, learn more, or punt the task to a more appropriate individual. Also keep in mind that there are occasions that you may be the right person for a necessary task, even if it is a risky operation. Sometimes a high risk project or task outweighs the consequences of not doing it, and that task might rightly fall on your list.
Getting the proper balance between perfection and recklessness is something each of us need to assess for our various responsibilities in the various roles we fill. While some are tempted to reach expert status before moving forward or executing, this is professionally paralyzing. I’m certainly not advocating recklessness, but there must be a happy balance between the two extremes. When it comes to moving forward in a career, many use their imperfections as a crutch. This manifests itself as procrastination. It is important that each of us understand our abilities and inabilities. It is also important to understand how these risks can affect our organizations. By finding the right balance of these factors, we can move forward appropriately in all areas of our career.