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The Problems of Perfection

The auto maker Lexus used to have a marketing slogan, The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.

Lexus Pursuit of Perfection

This sounded really good, right? As a customer, you would like perfect products. You don’t want to spend money to acquire problems.

But from a making perspective, perfection is often the enemy of good. It turns out that perfection, the idea of perfection, as well as the pursuit of it, has a lot of problems.

Perfection as Impossibility

First, everyone has heard the cliche that perfection is impossible in the real world. No matter how hard you work at something, there will always be some tiny deviation from the ideal defined by the design or blueprint. We build things to tolerances, understanding that exactly hitting a desired metric is practically impossible.  But we don’t need exact, we need good enough, and good enough can be as precise as it needs to be for the application. In some situations, tolerances are more critical than in others.

Chasing after something impossible can waste a lot of resources, and the futility of it can be frustrating. People tend to put an undue amount of pressure on themselves, feel negatively about themselves when they prove incapable of attaining such a high standard, and react negatively to mistakes and criticism, or even hide or deny problems rather than own  up to them, which is exactly the wrong way to respond to these learning opportunities.

Subjectivity and Contingency

Second, what is perfect? People have different needs, different opinions. Needs change as the times change. What is ideal for one situation is likely not ideal in another.  There’s no such thing as a one size fits all solution that is a perfect fit for everyone.  So perfect then means something more like highly customized, bespoke solutions.

But the amount of resources that are required to create such customized solutions for everyone are often better allocated toward more general solutions that are a better fit for the needs of larger groups of people. Imagine an auto maker taking your exact body measurements, and then using those to build a car with a seat that fits you — and only you — exactly perfectly, and where the dashboard and mirrors are likewise laid out in a perfect way so that you can see all the gauges and reach all the controls without straining.

But this would make a car that is many times more expensive to design and build, is much more expensive to maintain and support, and which has limited resale value.  It’s much more cost effective and beneficial instead to design a car with adjustable seats, that can fit 99% of people, is cheaper to design, manufacture, and support, and can be sold to anyone, not just people who are close enough in size to you that they can use your bespoke seat.

And even then, a car that is good for commuting isn’t going to be the best for cargo hauling.  Or have the best possible fuel efficiency.  Or be good off-road.  Or have the safest crash rating.  The perfect car contingent upon the usual need will score high in several of these important categories, but different users will value categories according to their own criteria, and may have a variety of use cases that they need to cover with a single vehicle, that cannot possibly be perfect for every need and every situation.

The foil of Trade-Offs

As is apparent in the car example above, most things are complex enough that there are always going to be trade-offs.  For example, a structure may need to be strong, but often weight is another important factor, and making something both strong and lightweight is a challenge because increasing one tends to diminish the other. Thus, a perfect thing in all aspects is not possible, but perhaps we replace the idea of a thing that is ideal in all categories with the idea of a thing that is a perfect balance of tradeoffs among the categories. But this sort of perfection is a lot more dependent upon subjective and contingent parameters. A set of compromises isn’t the usual concept of what perfection means.

Diminishing Returns

The more you want to improve something, the more effort needs to be put into improving it. At some point, the amount of improvement that you gain for the amount of effort that you put into the improvement will start to decrease. At some point short of perfection, the value of the improvement isn’t worth the effort.

For example, I could study for 2 hours and get an A on a test.  I could study an additional 4 hours, and boost my A to an A+.  Perhaps by studying 8 hours, I could score 100% on the test.  Is it worth it?  Or would that 6 hours be better spent getting an A on three other tests?

Can you hear the difference between a $500 stereo and a $5000 stereo?  And if so, is it worth spending 10x as much to get that difference? Is a $200 CPU good enough, or do you really need the $1000 CPU that delivers merely 2x the performance?  Sometimes it might be. But the situations where extreme high performance is required are comparatively few.

Perfecting a local maximum

Perfecting a thing requires focusing on the thing. But what if the thing isn’t the important thing, and the thing is merely a means to an end?  Say you want the best bicycle. So you spent all your time working on making bicycles better, better, and better still. So now you have a bicycle that’s nearly perfect. In the early days of pedal-power, the design of bicycles was much different.


A design known as the velocipede featured a large front wheel driven directly by pedals, and a tiny trailing wheel for balance. This design was popular for a time, and in the quest for ever greater mechanical advantage for producing higher top speeds, the front wheel diameter was increased. This gave rise to diminishing returns, and negative tradeoffs in balance and safety.

Local maximum

Prior to the invention of the modern bicycle, velocipede design had evolved to a point where it could go no further. Wheel size was so large that any larger would be impractical or impossible. This was a local maximum for the design, the zenith of a particular design concept, but still better designs were possible.

BicycleEventually the design died out when an inventor hit upon a better design, the modern bicycle, which featured two wheels of identical size and a chain driven gearing system that allowed higher gearing ratios than were possible in the now-obsolete direct drive velocipede designs.

Missing the next-gen paradigm shift

But what if your goal isn’t really to ride bikes exactly, and you simply want to go from point A to point B quickly?  There might be other vehicles that are better, but if all you can think of is a better bicycle, the idea to invent them may never occur to you. Famously, bicycle mechanics Wilbur and Orville Wright pioneered the airplane. If they’d been focused exclusively on perfecting the design of the bicycle, they never would have come up with their flying machines.

And paradigm shifts continued to happen with flight, from bi-planes to monoplanes, from propeller driven airplanes to jets. At each stage, what worked for the current generation could only be taken so far, and to make the leap to the next generation required a re-thinking and a discarding of older concepts in order for even better concepts to flourish.  The old continued to serve while the new was developed, but eventually once the new concept was proven a success, the old fell out of favor. And yet, at no stage was anything truly “perfect.”

The relentless pursuit of improvement

This is not to say that we shouldn’t make things as good as you can. But whatever we do, is always done within the scope of certain constraints.  Being aware of those constraints, we should make intelligent choices in order to maximize value, without being trapped by an idea of a perfect thing.

Updated: 2017-Nov-07 — 11:44 pm

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