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good enough is the enemy of the great
July 25, 2005 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Quotation filter -- who first said: "'Good enough' is the enemy of the great"?

Somebody here must know this!

The idea/quote comes in a billion different variations, but the gist is that a workable solution tends not to be improved once it has become entrenched in the infrastructure, even when a more optimal solution is available. Examples include the electoral college, typewriter keyboards, operating systems, international languages.

I don't want to debate the concept, I'm just looking for the original quotation or reference.
posted by Araucaria to Writing & Language (13 answers total)
 
"Better is the enemy of good" -- Voltaire
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:47 PM on July 25, 2005


Huh. I thought the quote was "'Better' is the enemy of 'good enough'" -- a saying my old boss used all the time to basically say, "If it ain't broke, don't 'fix' it."
posted by LordSludge at 12:48 PM on July 25, 2005


Right, LordSludge. The French proverb is "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." The original sense is sort of the opposite of how the phrase is used now. Originally, it was sort of "Leave well enough alone," that is, don't waste time looking for a perfect solution when there are countless good-enough solutions. At least, that's how I read it. The meaning has sort of gotten flipped around, it seems.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:51 PM on July 25, 2005


I've only ever heard it in the original sense -- never the way it's phrased in the question.
posted by jjg at 2:02 PM on July 25, 2005


When I've used it I've used it in the "if it ain't broke" sense that LordSludge suggests and I've never come across it used any other way. If the meaning is being flipped around, I've got to wonder where. Araucaria - do you have some supporting evidence for this phrase being used in the way you suggest?
posted by pascal at 2:09 PM on July 25, 2005


Google shows 6870 results for The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good (I've heard it this phrase a bunch of times) and 28 results for Good Enough is the Enemy of the Great (which I'd never heard before.) I, too, wondered if Araucaria might be misremembering.

I have no answer for the question as given, but Worse is Better is a related concept, popular in programming circles, with a well-documented origin.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:19 PM on July 25, 2005


pascal writes "When I've used it I've used it in the 'if it ain't broke' sense that LordSludge suggests and I've never come across it used any other way. If the meaning is being flipped around, I've got to wonder where. Araucaria - do you have some supporting evidence for this phrase being used in the way you suggest?"

pascal, I was probably infected during a mandatory 3 day, 10 hour/day organizational meeting (in Minnesota, in February -- worst meeting of my life) controlled by sales types who read things like Good To Great, which uses The Good is the enemy of the Great as its opening quotation. Not only does Collins butcher Voltaire, he also misuses Isaiah Berlin's fox and hedgehog comparison, with no attribution or understanding of historical context. Gah.

Zed_Lopez, Good is the Enemy of the Great gets 243 results, quite a few more.

After following some references, I find it odd that I've known the KISS rule for years, but never connected it with any form of this motto (Voltaire's original). And now I also know about YAGNI (negative) and YAGNI (positive).
posted by Araucaria at 4:05 PM on July 25, 2005


I think the conventional translation of Voltaire's line is "The best is the enemy of the good" (see, e.g., http://www.bartleby.com/66/2/63002.html), which I think is much more satisfactory as a proverb -- toiling for better isn't bad, but a quest for perfectionism is. In any event, the proverb does have a very different meaning than that suggested by the original post, which may mean that no one has answered it.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:24 PM on July 25, 2005


Perhaps it was Beryl Markham, or perhaps not.

Google is full of this business book, but I had heard the phrase before 2001, but Stephen Covey was saying something similar before that. "The good is the enemy of the best".

Or maybe it was Charles. E. Diehl?
posted by fleacircus at 4:30 PM on July 25, 2005


Clyde Mnestra writes "In any event, the proverb does have a very different meaning than that suggested by the original post, which may mean that no one has answered it."

See my self-answer above: it's Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. Though I don't know if he originated the mis-quotation.
posted by Araucaria at 4:30 PM on July 25, 2005


Araucaria,
I missed your self-answer, sorry. I'd only add that: (1) I think the original quote, translated, is as I rendered it, should anyone be interested in conveying that sentiment; (2) as to yours, unless I'm missing something, I would presume that Collins wasn't misquoting, but rather reacting to Voltaire by conveying an offsetting idea. Read charitably, at least.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:37 PM on July 25, 2005


It's not a misquotation so much as a takeoff on it, I think. It makes sense either way, although a different kind of sense.
posted by kindall at 4:38 PM on July 25, 2005


Somehow I don't think "good is the enemy of great" is the result of misunderstanding Voltaire. It seems more likely to me that it's a conscious clever turnaround.

I wonder about the phrase "the good is the enemy of the best," which might be very old. But did it mean originally "he who is good is the enemy of he who is best" (so being about excellence and jealousy), or does it mean the "good-ness is the enemy of best-ness"? Perhaps it was Voltaire who turned it around first...
posted by fleacircus at 4:44 PM on July 25, 2005


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