Last week as I was quickly mopping the kitchen floor before some visitors arrived, I began arguing in my head, as I often have, against the familiar maxim “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.” Many of us grew up with this saying. It was drummed into us by well-meaning and hard-working parents and grandparents trying to instill in us a strong work ethic and to help us take pride in our work. I honor and applaud the intent behind their advice. But for those who struggle against perfectionism, this is an adage from the dark side. It can invite paralysis and procrastination.
Furthermore, it is not true. Some jobs worth doing are not worth doing well, not always. Sometimes it is more important simply to get a job done, however imperfectly, than to do it well. Too many jobs worth doing are not done at all because people think they have to be done well. Perfectionists can become immobilized and held hostage by the feeling that every worthwhile job must be done well.
Moreover, one often has to do things poorly first before one can learn to do them well. When my wife learned to swim, her younger brother sat on the side of the pool because he wanted to swim without ever having to thrash around in the water like the rest of those learning how. He wanted to swim well without first swimming poorly.
I have often thought there is a sort of parable in this family story. The process of learning requires be willing to thrash about and even to fail. It means doing tasks imperfectly, often many times, before we do them well. Writers, composers, and artists have to produce a lot of weak, jejune work before they can produce strong, mature work. Tennis players have to hit a lot of serves into the net. Golfers must miss a lot of putts. And divers learning to do gainers must take some ungainly flops.
Our culture needs aphorisms to counterbalance our grandparents’ commonplace. As I wrote this essay, I discovered that the Christian writer G. K. Chesterton proposed one. He wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” As a Christian, Chesterton, knew the value of fortunate falls. He knew that in God’s plan, failure is often essential to growth. We need to allow ourselves to do things poorly if we are ever to learn to do them well.
Over the years I have also tried to develop alternative aphorisms. Here are a few:
Some jobs worth doing are not worth doing well.
If a job must be done, it may be done poorly.
If a job is worth doing well it is also worth doing not so well.
To do a job well you must first do it poorly.
Now if you are not a perfectionist, you may not need these alternative aphorisms. If you habitually do shoddy, sloppy, slovenly work, you need to heed your parents’ wise counsel: “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”
But if you are a perfectionist, you need to cut yourself some slack. You need to recognize that it is okay to run the mop quickly over the floor before company arrives, to make the bed without smoothing out every wrinkle, and to weed the garden without pulling up every weed.
So here is to doing some worthwhile jobs not so well. Here is to learning by trial and error. Here is to relishing the role of the amateur who will never be great but who nevertheless plunges into both work and play with gusto.