[This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Madison Magazine. Read it there.]
For several years, I belonged to an entrepreneurs network called Strategic Coach. Every quarter, I would get myself to Chicago to sit with other entrepreneurs from around the world, learning strategies to grow my business. It was truly stimulating, and I still use many of the concepts I learned.
One that’s been ringing in my ears lately is Progress, Not Perfection.
Many people—I’m lookin’ at you, A-type control freaks —are obsessed with nailing the latter. They want their website to be perfect. They want their car to be immaculate. They want their bathrooms to shine. They want their children to be angels.
Except websites develop errors, it rains sometimes, people crap, and kids are naughty.
With all that pressure for perfection, they are miserable. And they make others miserable.
What’s worse, they’re often paralyzed; they focus so intently on making things perfect that they never make anything at all.
We see this with Madison Prep, a prep school for non-white boys and girls in Madison, WI. Nitpickers like the ACLU and certain members of the School Board want a bulletproof plan for an experiment that’s never been tried in Madison. Clearly these folks want perfection.
In focusing on the minute details, they’ve lost sight of the larger picture. In their quest for perfect gender balance, guaranteed outcomes, and an airtight balance sheet, community leaders are conveniently forgetting that for more than forty years, Madison has underserved black kids, and starting by helping black boys might be okay.
This is as obvious as a ham sandwich, but if you’re entrenched in your position and demand perfection, you can’t see it.
In his bestseller Good to Great, Jim Collins famously wrote, “Good is the enemy of great.” But what we’re seeing in Madison and in policy discussion everywhere is that great is also the enemy of good.
New studies show that kids who are motivated by getting high grades choose classes they know they can ace. I used to be one of those kids. When asked in high school why I didn’t try out for a new sport, I said, “Because I only do things I know I’ll be great at.”
Thankfully when I studied overseas, I learned flexibility. I still wanted good grades; I just became more willing to balance them with exciting new adventures.
But the result for kids who never break out of that good-grades rut is that they don’t try things that would truly challenge them.
Research shows that kids who are rewarded for trying—for putting in Herculean effort to solve a problem, regardless of outcome—are more successful over time than GPA-focused kids. They’re unafraid. They believe, like Steve Jobs, that the journey is the reward.
Let’s take this up one notch, to the national level.
Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s Republican governor, poked a stick in the eye of his own party when he told the 2011 C-PAC audience: “Our first thought is always for those on life’s first rung, and how we might increase their chances of climbing.” He went on to say that if the Republican Party is to endure, it must create large coalitions of folks who aren’t perfectly aligned but who are committed to progress.
Mr. Daniels’s position is that American progress has always been about upward economic mobility. And if we’re not focused on that, we’re missing the point.
I think Mr. Daniels is right.
Bringing this back to Madison, we’ve underserved nonwhite populations for a long time. Inadvertently perhaps, we’ve prevented them from reaching the first rung of the ladder.
And it’s obvious to me that Madison’s aging white “progressive” baby boomers want “perfect” solutions, rather than settling for those that “merely” create momentum.
News flash: If we keep waiting for “perfect,” progress will never come, and Madison will become, as writer and former Isthmus editor Marc Eisen recently quipped, “an amusement park for aging hippies.”