better is the enemy of good

What is your interpretation of the phrase “the better is the enemy of the good”? Can you provide an example?

I’ve always heard it as “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Meaning, you’ll do a better job if you don’t worry so much about being perfect.

I’ve heard it as “good is the enemy of great”, i.e. settling for a mediocre result discourages one from trying for an extraordinary world-changing result.

I’ve heard it in the form given by inquiring_mind. I’ve taken it to refer to people who won’t complete a basic job because they’re not happy with the result and want to keep “improving” it e.g. I ask one of my staff to write a summary report on some data. Most people would turn it around in a day with 2-3 pages of basic analysis. The “better is the enemy of good” type is still working on it two weeks later, having expanded it into a 30 page *magnum opus * with endless graphs, statistical references and research that go way beyond what is necessary to fulfil the original request.

I’ve heard it the way tim_314 did, “The perfect being the enemy of the good.” The gist being that some will refuse to implement a partial solution to problems since some problem will still remain…but this refusal results in no part of the problem getting addressed, because they ultimately fail to find a resolution that solves everything.

Well, according to Google:

“the perfect is the enemy of the good” -> 21,600 hits
“the better is the enemy of the good” -> 300 hits
“good is the enemy of great” -> 19,700 hits

Looks like the first one is the more common one, at least as measured by the Google ‘zeitgeist’.

I’ve always heard it in that form, and understood it to mean that perfectionism can prevent you from getting anything done - a form of “analysis paralysis”.

I’ve taken it to mean that it refers to folks who keep tinkering with an object or work of art to keep trying to get it better. This search for the “better” is the enemy of a “good” completed object. As many artists and writers say, “a work is never “done”” – you can always screw around with it. One true case of this, to my mind, is John Harrison, who built the super-accurate clock needed for calculating one’s position aboard ships in the 18th century. His story is told in Dava Sobel’s Longitude. This guy built a succession of five clocks , each of which improved on the predecessor, and each of which, arguably, could have won the competition set up by the British goveernment to develop an accurate means of measurement. It took him decades.

One of my former bosses asked about the origin of the phrase. I stumbled across a reference in The Annotated Edgar Allen Poe where he cites it in French. The note said that the earliest known use is in French, and that it’s quite old, and that it seems to be an old saying not associated with any particular work.

Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. I would translate this as “the best is the enemy of the adequate.” Meaning, in my mind, that a focus on perfection is an impediment to getting things accomplished to an adequate standard. An indictment of perfectionism, in other words.

I would interpret that to mean that just because something was made better than it was, that does not mean it is good yet. Someone might stop making it better, because it’s already better, but that’s bad because it isn’t quite good yet.

I thought the Good was the enemy of the Bad. And the Ugly.

As a musician, I find a whole different meaning in “the perfect is the enemy of the good” – because in today’s music world, technically polished performers tend to drive out those who are “merely” talented or original.

Actually, I’ve come to realize that the best translation is “Git 'r done.”