In my very first job as a young engineer fresh out of college, I worked under an old, curmudgeonly manager who was approaching retirement. Bob (his real name) was an anxious chain-smoker, in the days when smoking in the office was allowed. For all his idiosyncrasies, he taught me some important lessons about “thinking outside the book” (my words, not his). Without articulating it explicitly, Bob clearly understood the difference between knowledge (information about a subject) and wisdom (good sense, judgment and insight). When prioritizing our workload, Bob would often say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Getting one thing perfect was less satisfying to Bob than producing lots of things.
The origin of this phrase is a bit murky, but it is often credited to Bert Lance, Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration. Bert was first quoted as saying it in the May 1977 issue of the magazine Nation’s Business. Author William Safire wryly commented that it “has become a source of inspiration to anti-activists.” The expression went viral, before viral was even a thing.
Our academic experience is the beginning of the relentless pursuit of perfection that plagues many of us. Efforts are constantly being assigned a place on the scale, with “A” being perfect, “B” and “C” good enough, and anything less a failure. In today’s culture, leisure is looked upon with envy – a leisurely attitude toward work is not. It is common to hear the term “Puritan Work Ethic”, referring to the pervasive and desirable drive to work hard. The Puritans, as it turns out, were working hard not to get better stuff, but to appease God and better their chances for salvation.
One of my most beloved mentors – who later served as my faculty advisor for Ph.D. studies at Caltech – was Dr. Bill Iwan. Dr. Iwan showed me how to balance the yin-yang of wisdom and knowledge both inside and outside of academia. As I was grappling with feelings of hope and fear just prior to my oral candidacy exam, he encouraged me by pointing out that at that particular moment, I had more knowledge about more things than I probably ever would in my career. He added that wisdom gained from my work in industry prior to returning to graduate school would be an advantage. After passing the exam and beginning my dissertation research, Dr. Iwan advised that this would probably be my last opportunity to work on a project until it was finished rather than until it was due.
Surveys have been warning us for some time of the creeping fatigue and malaise penetrating the American workforce. Researchers have also found that living a long and satisfied life doesn’t correlate with ambition. Professional status and fat salaries do not make us significantly healthier or happier than those with less ambition, nor do they make us less happy. The pandemic may have been the last straw that rallied many burned-out workers to finally act. The Great Resignation and quiet quitting have been studied by Professor John Kammeyer-Mueller from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management who has concluded that we are not suffering from waning motivation, but refocusing on things we would rather spend our time on. Mental health, it seems, is the newest and trendiest fitness goal.
I have Dr. Iwan to thank for showing me that life offers few opportunities to work on something until it is perfect. Bob was also more prophetic than I first thought, showing me (by analogy) the importance of prioritizing joy over perfection. In many cases, imperfection is a far better fate than unhappiness.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, and writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has 50 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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