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Best is the enemy of better

Posted by Smokey Stover on July 31, 2007

In Reply to: Best is the enemy of better posted by Bob on July 31, 2007

: : What does the following sentence mean?

: : "Best is the enemy of better."

: It's a rallying cry for mediocrity, a plea for the ordinary and adequate.

: Normally, one sees "good is the enemy of great," which means settling for "good enough" prevents one from attaining the highest levels. In the version you cite, however, the pleas seems to be the opposite: don't consort with Best when you can settle for Better. Hmm. I have a mother-in-law like that....

Don't listen to Cynical Bob. The aphorism means that if you won't settle for anything but the best, you are condemned to stay where you are, or even settle for worse. The obstacles to getting to the best are often insurmountable, while improvement short of perfection can often be obtained. Sometimes you hear the phrase as "Perfection is the enemy of the good," or the like. It means grab every chance of improvement, don't wait for that holy moment when perfection is at hand, because it probably ain't gonna happen. (And don't use the kind of English I use when I'm being colloquial.)

It is probably used most often in connection with legislation or other government action, when consensus has to be obtained. But there are many appropriate contexts. It advises a pragmatic, incremental approach to progress, as opposed to a perfectionaist approach. It's almost worthy of Ben Franklin. An example that I like, but is a bit tendentious, is that of Ralph Nader. In 2000, he found great fault with both major political parties in the U.S. in terms of progress towards his progressive ideals, which he shared with a large number of admirers. He entered the presidential campaign of 2000 with a platform which might be summarized as "Only the best, no sordid compromises and half-measures." He not only lost, but managed to bring down Al Gore, the candidate who had the best chance to bring at least some of Nader's ideals to fruition.

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