Perfectionism & Degrees of Freedom

Done Is Better Than Perfect

Perfectionism is one of my most pernicious attributes, keeping me from being the ruthlessly efficient and effective human that I aspire to be. When solving a problem, I feel the allure of the minutia. Plumbing the edge cases, and searching for the true global optimum — even on a relatively flat surface of alternatives.

I’m not sure how this is related to pedantry. It feels similar. Yet, I scorn pedantry, and still applaud undo rigor. Not “rigor qua rigor”; this is where i see pedantry. Rather, I see it as a thorough explanation to find the truth.

In academia this seen as a good thing. Getting published in my field almost always required a closed-form, analytical proof of a new methodology’s validity. I now see this as undue rigor. But I struggle to shake it in business.

Confidence In Uncertainty

I feel a need to fully understand everything before diving in. This initially hindered my ability as a web developer. Upon entering a new codebase, I’d try to understand the entire structure before I felt comfortable contributing. Painstakingly following every function call back up to some root state…

I’d see an unfamiliar class, method, or variable, and alarm bells would go off. I’d grep the whole codebase to see where it was defined — completely derailing my current path of inquiry.

Finally, I learned to be comfortable looking things up “just in time”. I became confident in uncertainty. I trusted variable names and used them to make educated guesses about what was happening. And only if some missing piece of knowledge became i) a blocker to my understanding, or ii) showed up multiple times s/t I knew I’d be dealing w/ it directly, would I stop to learn more about it. In either case, I already had more context to know what I was expecting. (APIs are a good example of this.)

Degrees of Freedom

Vacillating on decisions is another place where perfectionism stymies efficacy.

The key is to realize that there’s no perfect answer. Or, if there is, the cost of the search for it might outweigh the benefit once found. 

This leads to the imperative to make a decisions and commit to them.

Business partners are a good example of where I struggle on this. No business partner is perfect. You and I certainly aren’t. But those partnerships need to be steadfast in the face of extreme challenge. It’s easy to second guess a business relationship before you’ve raised money, hired employees, etc. (It’s even easy after you’ve done those things!) But without a foundation of unwavering commitment — if you always have a foot out the door, feeling FOMO for all the other business partnerships that could’ve been — you’ll be operating way under capacity and are far less likely to succeed.

In cases like these, then, it’s important to have some way to commit to your decisions.

I think of this like degrees of freedom. Take a simple system: x + y = 1. If I asked you to solve for x and y, you’d give me an infinite sequence of pairs, all satisfying the above system. One equation, two degrees of freedom => no single solution.

If, however, I told you that y = ½x or y = 0.5, now you can easily identify a unique solution for x. We’ve reduced the system’s degrees of freedom, and can now find a tractable solution.

We took this thing which was a variable, y, and turned it into something immutable. From that foundation, we were able to solve for x.

So, when you’re waffling on a decision that you’ve already made, and that you don’t have any compelling reason to change: reduce the degrees of freedom. Adjust your mental model to think of that thing not as a variable, but as something immutable.

It will give you a stronger foundation to solve the other problems downstream of that one.

When to Waffle?

It’s clear that there will be times when it makes sense to change these immutable things. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

That’s beyond the scope of this discussion, but i’ll give two rules that can help.

  1. Give yourself some other condition that must be hit for you to reconsider this immutable variable. e.g.) an amount of time, an objective milestone, etc.
  2. Realize that as a perfectionist you likely skew way too far towards wanting to rethink these immutable decisions, and therefore should try to overcorrect for them.


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