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Perfection: Enemy of Progress?

Holding us back from even startingThis idea is informally known as perfection being the enemy of the good. This is not to say that striving for perfection is not good. We should always strive for perfection in all spheres of our lives, and if we do not achieve it, we find out why we didn’t and correct ourselves. The problem arises when we plan and plan and wait for the circumstances around us to be supposedly “perfect” before we take any action.

Holding us back from even startingShaitan is one tricky dude. He whispers in our ear to finish watching this TV show and do our prayers after it’s over. He goads us to say things about people behind their backs. He and his minions will do the best they can to make us proud of our good deeds once we have done them. Bottom line, his goal is to make us sin and go further and further away from the Right Path. But he not only does this in the obvious ways just mentioned. Shaitan is also a master of human psychology. He actually has a PhD in human psychology because he has been alive longer than any human, and knows our ins and outs and what makes us tick. In Sura Aa’raf, Shaitan is quoted as saying to Allah, “As You have caused me to remain disappointed, I will certainly lie in wait for them in Your straight path. Then I will certainly come to them from before them and from behind them, and from their right-hand side and from their left-hand side; and You shall not find most of them thankful.” (7:16-17) This sounds like one who has dedicated his entire existence to taking mankind off the Path. And one of the ways he does this is by not only making us commit sin, but also making it seem difficult to change ourselves and turn back to the Path. This could arguably be his most devastating trick of them all.

How many people do we know, ourselves included, who are overweight, out of shape, or just want to get into better physical shape? Nearly all of us at some point feel like this. When this happens, the first thing we usually do is ask friends what they are doing and what works for them, order the latest version of p90x, make sure we have the best running shoes and all the best equipment available, research all the gyms in the area and their specific plans and what they offer, and the list can go on. We also want to make sure it’s a perfect 80 degree day outside before we do anything and that we have the latest electronic equipment and smartphone apps to monitor our progress.

Doing all this can take time and money, and at the end of the process, few people are still motivated enough to follow through on the lofty fitness goals they have set for themselves, when all along, the best thing we could have done for ourselves is grab the old running shoes and exercise clothes we had and just go outside and run for a half hour. This is a much better starting point to refine our exercise regimen than researching and overanalyzing and not taking any actionable steps.

This idea is informally known as perfection being the enemy of the good. This is not to say that striving for perfection is not good. We should always strive for perfection in all spheres of our lives, and if we do not achieve it, we find out why we didn’t and correct ourselves. The problem arises when we plan and plan and wait for the circumstances around us to be supposedly “perfect” before we take any action. This problem can arise in nearly all aspects of our lives. As in the example of physical fitness, we tend to overextend ourselves in the initial steps when the best thing would be to just do something and go from there. This is part of the reason why many people’s New Years fitness resolutions only last for a few weeks or months. They feel that starting on January 1 will give them the best advantage and motivation, and when they feel results aren’t showing the way they would like, they lose that zeal and just quit all together. This can also affect people in the business world. When people are looking to start a business or side job, they usually wait until they have the “perfect” idea before moving forward, not knowing that the best course of action would be to try something and refine from there. The well-known author and blogger Ramit Sethi calls this the “85% solution”. That is, instead of planning and waiting for that perfect opportunity, just doing something and trying puts you ahead of the curve and gets you 85% of the way there. The remaining 15% is just refining and perfecting your initial try. And 85% of the way there is a lot better than 0%.

Back to our friend Shaitan, he can use this phenomenon to prevent us from doing our obligatory actions and stopping our progress to becoming better people. He does this by congratulating us on deciding to do something good, but then convincing us to delay it until we lose the zeal to do it anymore. Just one example of this would be someone who has neglected prayers in the past but has now decided to start performing them on time and every day. The devil will make us feel good about this decision, but will try his best to distract us. He can make doubt creep into our mind if Allah will even accept our prayers or not since we have missed so many. He will want us to wait until a holy day of the Islamic calendar to start which will feel good symbolically so we won’t start right away. He will make us distracted thinking about all the du’as and extra prayers we can say. He will make us think all of these things, when the best thing we could do is to get on our knees and do a two-unit prayer of thanks to Allah and move on from there to start performing the obligatory prayers that day. There are numerous examples one can think of where Shaitan can mislead us in this way.

So how does one combat such a psychological obstacle? The answer is simple: just do something. Many times this is the best motivation for us and will keep us striving on the road to perfection. Allah also espouses this idea in the Qur’an; He tells us to call on Him, and that He will answer. He says to repent, and we will be forgiven. He says to do good, and we will enter Heaven. Doing good is as simple as taking action and making that action better and better. Imam Ali (peace be upon him) says it best in Nahj al-Balagha, “When you feel afraid or nervous to do a thing, then do it because the real harm which you may thus receive is less poignant than its expectation and fear.”

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