What’s the best piece of career advice you have received? - “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”

I grew up learning a form of classical Indian dance called Odissi that demanded rigorous practice and meticulous attention to detail. Throughout the years, my guru gently corrected my form in innumerable ways. She would even correct the sound that my feet made when they hit the ground, which she said was a dead giveaway of whether I was applying the right technique in my stepping. My focus on the minutiae of my movements translated well in other areas of my life. I was the type of high school student who would pore over a reading assignment for hours, trying to make sure I understood every last word of The Odyssey or found just the right phrase to use in my U.S. History essay. My teachers more or less rewarded me for this approach. 

However, when I entered the workforce after college as a fellow at a nonprofit, I got a piece of advice prior to writing an assignment that seemed daunting to me at the time. When my boss said, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” I thought I had misheard him. 

Until then, I had never envisioned the idea of “perfectionism” as a negative quality – sure, it was a self-characterization that I admitted to others with a sheepish laugh, but I wore it as a badge of honor nonetheless. “How could perfect be the enemy of anything, much less the enemy of good?” I thought. 

Now that I have begun law school, I am realizing the value of this advice once again. In law school, where “make sure to sweat the small stuff” is a common refrain, it is easy to assume that perfection is always the gold standard, no matter what you may have to sacrifice in its wake. However, implicit in my boss’ advice was a golden nugget – you must balance perfectionism with practicality: in the law, and in life, there is simply not enough time to get bogged down in the details at the expense of missing other, more important ideas. 

For example, rather than ensuring your forty-page law school final exam outline is meticulously color coded, it is important to get through this stage to review the resource you've made, turn it into a cheat sheet, and test it out with practice problems – which will actually be more productive than fitting every single detail into your outline. 

As another example, I recently wrote my first formal legal memorandum – a rite of passage that required us to read and synthesize rules from twenty-four cases and form our own legal analysis of a fictional fact pattern. After reading every case with painstaking detail and compiling all my findings in a case chart, I realized I had not learned anything about the main rules. I could not summarize what any of the cases had said, because I had gotten lost in the weeds of the assignment. I read each case again, focusing on the big picture and not worrying about getting every last thing down, and emerged with a much clearer sense of how the cases could apply to our fact pattern. 

This is a skill I know I need to hone. In practice, I aspire to learn how to recognize and prioritize the details that matter, so that I sweat over those, rather than losing sight of the forest for the trees. I certainly have room to grow, and letting go of my nitpicky tendencies won’t happen overnight. But I know that if I keep my former boss’ advice in mind and stop letting perfect get in the way of “good,” I will be a more effective advocate for the people who need my help the most. Only then I can even begin to image crossing the line from “good” to “great.”

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