Saturday, October 5, 2013

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien

In my previous post I wrote about one of the two most useful and important pieces of wisdom that had ever been shared with me. The title of this post represents the other. 
It is a quotation from Voltaire translated as "The perfect is the enemy of the good", or "The best is the enemy of the good." It came to me stated a little differently, as an admonition: "Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good." That is how I remember it, and strive to put it into practice. President Geoff Gamble of Montana State University shared it with me in this form, shortly after he arrived from the University of Vermont in 2001. I was the interim provost at the time. Geoff was a terrific mentor and the eight years we worked together were very productive and even fun (most of the time). 
Geoff’s point, and presumably Voltaire’s, was that a single-minded insistence on perfection (or on getting exactly what you define as a perfect outcome) may be (and frequently is) counter-productive. Perfection is nearly always unattainable. One can pitch a perfect game, or receive a perfect score, occasionally experience a “perfect day”, but that’s about it. Recognizing the wisdom of “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” in no way precludes us from setting high goals and striving for excellence. In my experience, I have found this maxim to be consistently valuable in devising strategies to achieve ambitious goals, in implementing those strategies, and in assessing progress.
The central question then becomes: “Is this a step in the right direction?” Any particular outcome may fall well short of our ultimate goal, but if it has moved us forward along the path to achieving the goal, then we should recognize that progress and focus on planning and executing the next step that would advance us further.
The University of Rhode Island is just completing its 17th Diversity Week, and our efforts towards building a diverse community are a timely example how “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” can work effectively in practice. Our goal is to build a broadly diverse community where every member is welcomed, affirmed, respected, and supported. If we could achieve that for every member of our community every day, it would indeed be perfect, I think. We are far short of achieving such an outcome. It is useful to frequently remind ourselves that we have a lot more work to do – you can’t solve a problem until you admit it exists – and the Diversity Week program provided many such useful moments. But the speakers, panels, and performances also provided many, many examples of progress: of good things already achieved and of ambitious efforts to forge ahead towards our goal.
Thank you to all who planned and facilitated this year’s program, to all those who participated, and all those who support the University of Rhode Island’s efforts to build an inclusive, caring community.