“Perfection is the enemy of progress”

The quote is commonly stated in the world of startups. I’ve found it plastered on office walls and referred to during sprint and strategic planning meetings. But what does the quote actually mean?

I love the quote because it truly encapsulates a foundational principle of Agile and Strategy development. At its core, development is about staying present and non-reactive, while honing in on the next step that will move things a forward. The Agile process forces us to put aside perfection for progress and helps us understand why “perfectionism” can be the personality trait that’s holding us back.

Perfection sounds like:

●︎ “I have only one shot at this. If I fail/lose/get rejected, it means I suck and I should quit.”

●︎ “It’s either ALL or NOTHING. IF I can’t get everything I want now, what’s the point?”

●︎ “If I fail, I’m done. I can’t go on.”

●︎ “Nothing is ever good enough.”

●︎ “I can’t show this to anyone until it’s perfect.”

Progress, on the other hand, sounds like:

●︎ “I’ll take as many shots as I can. I’ll learn from every attempt. I’ll get stronger and better.”

●︎ “I’ll start small and simple now, then iterate and evolve over time.”

●︎ “Failure is an event, not a characteristic.”

●︎ “Done is better than perfect.”

●︎ “Real-world feedback helps me learn and improve.”

Try using the following tactics to stay in the progress zone when the lure of perfectionism has pulled you off course.

1. Take Small Steps and Ignore Big Drama

Perfectionism loves drama. You’ll start to notice that even before you’ve taken any steps toward fulfilling a dream, perfectionism will chime in with endless, berating questions.

Is my business idea even any good? How will I get it going? How am I going to manage dozens of people? What if I fail? What if I SUCCEED? I’ll probably ruin my family. Everyone will be jealous of me. I’ll lose friendships over this. Oh God, I’ll wind up divorced and alone for the rest of my life…

Don’t indulge in this drama-fest. Keep your head down and do the work. Take small steps. Baby steps, even. Do them daily. Show up to the class. Build the prototype. Write your pages. Run your miles. Send the survey. Deposit one dollar. Be clean and sober for one hour. Whatever your dream is, get obsessed with making simple, daily progress. That’s it.

You can scare yourself into stuckness by assuming you have to make radical life changes in order to make progress. You don’t. Real change is practically invisible as it’s happening. No trumpets sound. A marching band will not play at your door. Meaningful progress doesn’t feel particularly exciting. Most days, it feels like work. You show up, grind it out (sometimes joyfully, sometimes not), and repeat.

2. Plan Ahead For Problems

No matter how organized or motivated you are, things will knock you off track. From illness to technology fails to everyday interruptions, there will be loads of obstacles on your path.

Anticipating and solving for them in advance is the key to steady progress. Here’s how to do it: Think in microterms.

What could derail your workday? Allowing text or email notifications? Taking unnecessary phone calls? Failing to stock the fridge? Then go bigger. What could take your whole project off track? Missed deadlines? Weather delays? Tech headaches?

In our company, we noticed a pattern of delays related to design and development. We began to anticipate and solve those problems in advance by regularly running through worst-case scenarios on any new project and brainstorming ways to handle them. It’s not a foolproof system, but it helps.

Ask yourself, “What potential problems could arise? What can I plan for in advance (even if it’s my own emotional toughness) to mitigate the negative impact of potential problems? What do I need to do now in order to keep making progress?”

3. Expect (and Embrace) Self-Doubt

After the novelty of chasing your big dream has subsided, chances are you’ll be swallowed by a tsunami of self-doubt.

WHY did I say yes to this?! This is all wrong. I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I don’t have what it takes. Maybe I should just quit. Maybe I should change the whole thing and start from scratch. I hate this. I hate everything. I hate myself!

Whether you’re getting in shape, building a product, writing a screenplay, launching a new business or career, healing a relationship, or running for office—expect self-doubt to punch you in the gut.

I cannot emphasize how common this is. It usually happens more than once, especially on big projects. Everyone experiences this surge of self-doubt when moving beyond their comfort zone. This is a hallmark of progress, not a signal to stop.

4. Above All: Cultivate Patience

What’s wrong with me?! How long is this going to take?”

Answer: As long as it does.

Doing exactly the kind of work that I do now, was so important that I was willing to do whatever it took, for as long as it took, to see it through.

Cultivate patience.

But the ease and speed of tech toys doesn’t map to real life.

To build skills, earn trust, develop a body of work, forge relationships, gain mastery, or solve complicated problems, it takes sustained, relentless effort.

There are no shortcuts.

If you’re not willing to work your ass off over an extended period of time (I’m talking years, not months), then be honest with yourself: that dream isn’t really that important to you. That’s okay. Drop it. Dig deeper. Find something you are willing to stick with and work for, no matter how long it takes.

Life doesn’t demand perfection. Life doesn’t require you to be constantly fearless, confident, or self-assured. Life simply requires that you keep showing up.