In Blog

(perfectionists and pragmatists)

Posted by: on Sep 20, 2015 | No Comments
Here's something I told my class a couple of weeks ago.

Here are two strategies for getting things done: perfectionism and pragmatism.

Perfectionism involves trying to make things perfect. Pragmatism involves trying to make things good enough.

Perfectionists tend to thrive when approaching a project with specific, clearly measurable criteria, a well-defined timeline, and a clearly defined end state. They have to know what and where the target is so that they can hit it. They look for clear rules and play by those rules. And they get upset if rules, timelines, or criteria change.

Perfectionists thus tend to do pretty well during the first couple of years of college, which involve these sorts of well-defined projects. In fact, they tend to hold instructors to what they have said when assigning these projects. That is, they try to control circumstances so that the strategy works. No moving targets.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is a brittle strategy. Because it relies on an unchanging end state and criteria—that is, an unmoving target—it is not a good strategy to apply to ill-defined, emergent problems with unclear timelines and open possibilities; complex interdisciplinary problems; problems that require tradeoffs and compromises; problems with undefined end states; problems that are not amenable to control.

These problems are the ones we tend to encounter in advanced studies, say, in the second couple of years of college. They are also the kinds of problems we encounter in collaborative work, in entrepreneurial work, and in work that involves discovery. That is, these problems characterize knowledge work, as I discuss in detail in All Edge.

Those problems are more tractable to a second strategy: pragmatism.

Pragmatism is a resilient strategy. It recognizes that some problems—perhaps most problems—have no perfect solution. Instead, pragmatism aims at solutions that are good enough, solutions that satisfy (or satisfice) a number of different stakeholders. In a pragmatic view, the target is not out there, already defined; part of the project involves making the target and tracking it as it moves, changes nature, changes in scope.

Since perfectionism works so well in the first couple of years of college, it's easy for students to think of it as the correct strategy. It's easy for them to begin thinking that there's an underlying social contract that all tasks should be clearly defined, and if they aren't, someone is being a bad actor. But since most problems are not like that, and since the assumed social contract doesn't actually exist beyond the walls of defined hierarchies, this strategy tends to fail—and sometimes fail spectacularly.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, often looks like slacking or halfheartedness during the first two years of college. Its value is often not seen until later, when students desperately need that strategy to make real contributions, ones that involve creativity, emergence, and multiple stakeholders.

We need to make the benefits of pragmatism plainer, and we need to teach the tools and practices that make pragmatism work. Doing so will help people—especially our college graduates—become well equipped to realize those benefits. Perfectionism is maladapted for an all-edge, networked world; pragmatism is the essence of that world.