Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Work

"If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly." I have always lived by these words of wisdom from G.K.Chesterton. You probably think he has it backwards, but I understand exactly what he means: it's better to do a job halfway than not at all. Imagine your car is covered in mud, and you rinse it off with a hose. That would be considered a poor excuse for a wash by most people, but you will have improved the appearance of your car drastically. If you go on to wash it carefully by hand, you will spend much more time and energy -- maybe 30 minutes instead of the 5 minutes to hose it down -- and your car will look only a little better. Some people probably won't notice the difference unless they look closely, but everyone will notice that you got the mud off.

If this seems illogical to you, it might make more sense if you think of the 80/20 rule. This "rule" (more like a rule of thumb) states that 20% of the work on a project accomplishes 80% of the task, and the remaining 80% of the work will go into the final 20% of the job. There is no guarantee that this exact proportion will apply to any specific task, of course, but basic economic theory tells you that the marginal utility will decrease the more work you do.

(I've always wondered if this law of decreasing marginal utility might only apply after a certain point. It's it possible that the first chocolate bar gets you excited for a second, so that the second actually tastes better? Eventually, the utility must go down, but I don't think it always begins at the first unit. Moreover, there must be some cases where the next amount of work completes a unit, and therefore has more value than the rest. Imagine if you are building a car, and in the last stage you attach the drive train and engine. Surely that makes the car worth far more than the prior step? Arguably the car should be worth the final value minus the drive train, engine, and the labour to install it. But could you really get that value for it? You can sell a whole car on a dealer's lot and take advantage of the brand name, warranty, existing networks, and so forth; but a shell of a car would have none of that benefit, and adding them in later by a third party would decidedly not make it a "Ford car" or whatever manufacturer we're talking about.)

So I never "let the perfect be the enemy of the good": I always like to jump into a project that needs doing, even if I know I'm going to do a lousy job. But there is a limitation to this logic. Having a project 80% done might make it worth a good deal to you, but it would be a disaster to try to sell it as an example of your work. Everyone would think you did a sloppy job, and they would be right; and they wouldn't buy from you again. You would want to get it at least 95% complete (assuming 100% = perfect and therefore not attainable). In fact, if you produce individual works that your reputation rides on -- paintings or symphonies, for example -- it might well be worth your trouble to get it 99.9% complete, even if it means you have to spend years on the final 0.9%. People will remember you as the person who produced a nearly perfect work, and your reputation will benefit you, including in financial terms.

Since I began this blog entry with Chesterton, I thought I would close it with him, as well. If you have not read any of his Father Brown mysteries, you really should. He is an extraordinary writer, one of the most evocative I have ever read. The first 2/3rds of "The Man Who Was Thursday" is brilliant, although by the end it gets a little weird for me. Since he wrote short stories, however, you can easily read one and see if you like him. I'm convinced you will.

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