Done is better than perfect. And perfect is the enemy of good. These are two concepts that exist where my worlds collide as an interventional radiologist and mom. I wanted to talk about each of them and how they help me. In short, embracing imperfection has made me better in each of these roles.
As good little students who became dutiful physicians, we were groomed to do the best we could– at all costs. As pre-meds, doing our best meant BEING the best, not risking a single error that could result in a grade less than 100%. Most of us got a slap across the face as we entered medical school. There, the perfect score was nearly unattainable, except for those possessing a level of genius or perfectionism so high, it was almost dysfunctional. But I want to tell you: the opposite of perfect is not laxity!
The idea that it is came from one of my mentees, who presented this dichotomy as a fact one day. The opposite of perfection isn’t laxity. Sometimes imperfection is optimal.
I’m not a perfectionist by nature. So when I entered medical school I found myself on the underachieving end of the spectrum. I actually had to step it up a notch to keep up with the fast-paced and detail-oriented method of studying needed to pass my classes.
But as I became a parent, I realized how much time I used to spend on small tasks that didn’t matter. There are just so many duties as a parent, and if you were meticulous about them all, that’s all you’d ever have time to do. There wouldn’t be much time left for living. During the toddler years, we’re in a cycle of potty, diaper, pants. Socks and shoes. Pick a clean shirt, might be wrinkled. Celebrate if he doesn’t refuse a shirt today, and the task is done without resistance.
When I make lunch for my boy to take to “school,” I’m going for something that’s adequate and can be eaten at room temperature. I include some variety and aim for nutrition. But there is no point in perfection since I have no control over what he will actually eat when he’s there. I am confident that he won’t starve, whether he eats it or not. That’s why done is better than perfect.
In my field, interventional radiology, “perfect is the enemy of good” was a common phrase uttered by my mentors. As we re-opened a clotted, scarred vein in the thigh (or an occluded artery, either way), the goal was to restore in-line flow. You want uninterrupted flow from the lower leg through the abdomen. If there was some residual rattiness to the vessel lumen after thrombectomy and balloon dilation, that was okay, as long as there was in-line flow. If you tried to get the vein to look perfect, you could actually do more harm than good. You could balloon again, dissecting the vessel, or even rupturing it. You could stent for a cleaner looking lumen, only to find the stent crushed or thrombosed later on.
Basically, what we learn in procedure suites and operating rooms can be applied to life, and vice versa.
I interviewed Dr. Arghavan Salles for my upcoming book, Tired Superheroine’s Guide to Finding Your Place in Medicine (which will be out in October!). As an academic bariatric surgeon and a former scholar in residence at Stanford, she had some wisdom to share regarding her past perfectionism.
“I’ve experienced many failures, and one of my biggest has been being so hard on myself and those around me. In school and in training, I always expected myself to be perfect. An ugly voice in my head would taunt me if I didn’t get the best possible grade, or made even a small mistake. Allowing that voice to dictate my attitude has been a huge challenge, and in my eyes, a failure. I’ve been working on trying to quiet this inner critic, because perfection isn’t real, and striving for it is a path to sadness, not success.”
My kid doesn’t care if I’m perfect, and realizing this helps me let go of the self-consciousness of my youth. What he cares about is whether I’m there for our nightly ritual: crazy time, jumping all over, then settling into Three Little Pigs and Cinderella. I tried and failed to remember the words to the song the fairy godmother sang as she transformed Cinderella and her pumpkin for the ball. I sang it anyway. Wes, my boy, understood enough to know I was singing gibberish. He looked at me sideways and cracked up.
My kid loves me in my imperfection. And when I let myself just be– when I sang the song without worrying about getting it right– we found joy.
The path can be riddled with failures, even if you're doing it right. In this recording, I share some of my gaffes with you.