Aim for progress, not perfection.

January 14, 2013 by Jared Goralnick

Progress, not perfection on the darboard by Wili_hybrid on FlickrIn the past week, two of the smartest people I know have taken issue with features or projects I’m working on.

They were engineers, and their arguments were logical and comprehensive, but fundamentally misguided.

Their arguments were of the "this won’t cure cancer" variety: they explained that my proposed solution would not be definitive, just like most research on cancer targets just a subset of people.  Trying to cure cancer is about making progress, until maybe someday we arrive at the true panacea.

Here were the specific arguments presented to me:

This pattern doesn’t always indicate [that path], so we can’t recommend [that path] to the user"
- paraphrased from a conversation with Person A

But the pattern (which was easy for our software product to identify, but nearly impossible for a human to recognize) is accurate more than 90% of the time.  So, as far as I’m concerned, 90% is good enough to recommend a path to our users.  This solution doesn’t address a life or death problem, but even if it did, it’d still be the best recommendation.

It has the potential to be successful, much like businesses that sell anti-aging cosmetics to aging women.  The customer understands that the problem is unsolvable, but readily pays for a combination of A) buying time on the hamster wheel, and B) fooling themselves for some amount of time.
- verbatim from an email from Person B

Once again, this colleague is comparing a working solution to a fantastical cure-all.  My solution wasn’t tricking people, it was just solving one portion of a bigger problem.  If that portion weren’t a problem on its own, then perhaps I’d be selling snake oil to fools.  But if that portion is legitimate (and he does believe that there are benefits) then I’m making real progress for real people.  Even if I’m talking about productivity rather than saving lives.

Someday all of us can hope to cure a disease or overthrow a nascent industry.  In the meantime, it’s both reasonable and right to push society forward in small and meaningful ways.

Aim for progress, don’t get caught up in perfection.

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4 Responses to “Aim for progress, not perfection.”


  1. Nathaniel Borenstein

    As person B, I don’t think we actually disagree. But I think it’s very hard to market a service like this without at least implying the promise of the impossible. Anti-aging creams don’t promise to make you a little less old looking, they promise to make you look young, even though that’s impossible. And if you do market it more responsibly, you’re likely to lose out, in the market, to someone with fewer scruples about what they claim. It’s not the product that strikes me as questionable — not at all — but rather the way you will almost inevitably have to market it.

  2. Leigh Christie

    Wait… so A and B are saying you should not being doing these things? or are they saying there are more important things to do?

    the former is patently bad advice.

    the latter may be true, but they have to factor in rarity and serendipity. The most important threat facing the human race, right now, might be global warming. But if everyone tried to tackle that challenge head one, we’d be completely screwed since at least someone has to keep keep the sewage flowing and the food growing.

    The history of technology would suggest that a good deal of serendipity is involved in every major scientific and engineering breakthrough (James Burk’s connections comes to mind).

    A direct example on how something (seemingly) small could lead to something huge:
    The future of communication, where message creation and transmission takes less than a millisecond, will likely involve evolve to something that resembles telepathy. In such a world, message overload will be a far greater problem than anything we can even conceive of at presence (people will laugh at the idea of spam being something people complain about). Clearly there will be a time where trillions of simultaneously created messages will be accessible (and somewhat useful) to us. In a hive-mind world where we each “know” millions of people, it’s possible that a large fraction of these messages will be directed to us specifically! A complex system of message filters and labels has already begun it’s long evolutionary path. Your work with AwayFind is a good example of a highly controllable system for message importance hierarchy. One of many early steps towards a highly effective hive-mind communication system. Many people say we’re already there, but tell that to me the next time I’m stuck checking email for 3 hours when I should be finishing of a CAD drawing, a BOM or debugging my latest OpenCV project.

    Such a system will likely be used to overcome the worlds greatest challenges. Thank you for helping in this effort.


  3. Jared Goralnick

    Hi Nathaniel,

    You’re right that just like anti-aging cream is not a perfect panacea, nor is any one email solution. From a marketing perspective, there are two goals: (1) keep things simple enough to easily digest (2) not promise the impossible since that’s easy enough to detect as impossible and since one of course cannot deliver on it. With AwayFind, we do reduce the problem to a little less complexity than there is, but I don’t think that’s disingenuous, it’s just the role of marketing and general communications best practices. And I don’t believe we overpromise–at the end of the day we’re just trying to make progress toward something. It’s sort of like how a therapist can’t fix someone, but they can make life a little easier to manage. We want to be one piece of the email puzzle, but in the process there is a need to sell a little of the sizzle. That doesn’t seem questionable to me.


  4. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks, Leigh. I appreciate your thoughts here!

    I do think that A & B were both making arguments with the goal of not proceeding down the path…however, they didn’t really have a strong alternative path to suggest.

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