Perfect is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

In golf, it’s called the 90% rule. Rather than aim for a hole-in-one on every shot, an experienced golfer will try to hit the ball 90% of the way to the hole. Statistically, professional golfers already hit the ball better than your average club player, but they are exceptionally good at the 90% rule. They know that to compete at the highest level, they don’t have to be perfect with every shot; they just have to be good enough. And that’s what it takes to separate them from everyone else with a set of clubs.

Voltaire was right. So right, in fact, that he might have made a great golfer.

the pareto principle

The godfather of good enough was Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian polymath born in 1848. Though his research didn’t specifically target the sufficiency of good enough, he explored the statistical roots of this phenomenon while teaching at the University of Lausanne. In his first work of significance, Cours d’économie politique, Pareto noted that roughly 20% of the Italian population owned 80% of the land. His work reflected the statistical reality of power law, which defines the functional relationship between two known quantities; as one changes, the other exhibits a proportional change.

The Pareto principle, as it came to be known, was further extrapolated by engineer and management consultant Joseph Juran, who applied Pareto’s thinking to the field of quality control: 80 percent of quality issues share the same 20% of the causes. Juran later referred to this as “the vital few and the useful many,” reflecting his thoughts on quality as much as production. The 80/20 rule applied universally: 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its products; 80% of the effort in an organization comes from 20% of the team members; or 80% of the best music produced comes from 20% of the recording artists (which explains one-hit wonders, if you think about it).

Most leaders consider the Pareto principle, even if unconsciously. While 20% of our team might produce 80% of our success, 20% of our team also create 80% of our problems. It’s not uncommon to spend 80% of your time with 20% of your team, and not the 20% that produces 80% of your success. The 20% that account for 80% of the accidents, 80% of the absences, and 80% of your aggravation. But I digress.

The 80/20 rule brings us full circle to good enough. Like golf’s 90% rule, the Pareto principle acknowledges that most organizations get by quite well with that 80%. The remaining 20% is where quality improvement efforts focus most intently, attempting to claw back as much of it as possible. But the amount of effort required to reclaim that 20% is disproportionately difficult, because the 80/20 rule still applies: you’ll spend 80% of your time and effort and only gain another 20%. At which point, the law of diminishing returns takes hold.

To paraphrase Voltaire, perfect is the enemy of good enough.


It’s a fundamental truth that most of us aren’t going to be professional golfers and, try as we might, the 90% rule might be the best we can do. A fact that former New York Times editor Tim Herrera emphasized in a 2019 article, citing the need to come to terms with good enough. Herrera, like many seasoned leaders, understands that perfection is an elusive pursuit: “By agonizing over tiny improvements in our work… we prevent ourselves from achieving the actual goal of, you know, doing the work.”

Herrera preaches the gospel of the Mostly Fine Decision, the root of which “lies in the difference between maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers will relentlessly pursue perfection out of the fear of choosing a less than optimal solution; satisficers are comfortable making quick decisions with less information. One tends to be risk averse and eschews uncertainty, the other comfortable with both risk and ambiguity. The fascinating paradox here, Herrera notes, is that research shows that maximizers are never content with their decisions, while satisficers are typically the opposite.

Making good enough work for you isn’t all that complicated. First, break down your goals into manageable pieces. I use white boards and “to-do” checklists that allow me to focus on micro-progress by chipping away at my major goals through the myriad sub-tasks required to achieve them. Second, focus on the process of efficiently completing all of those sub-tasks. Success is a work in progress, and goals are achieved through iterations of often repetitive tasks. As James Clear, the bestselling author of Atomic Habits, wrote, “Focus on the repetitions that lead to [your goals]. Focus on the piles of work that come before the success.”

“In the end,” Herrera reminds us, “just do the work.” It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be done. And done on time, as we all know from experience, is better than perfect late. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.