“Perfect is the enemy of good.”
Sometimes perfect finds us when we least expect it.
Late last year, I was asked to keynote at a meeting of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) for school districts across the state of Illinois. I could never have conceived how this invitation would help save a life and change the future.
In March 2020, this group of professionals, and their staffs, went through a modern-day Dante’s inferno as they, literally overnight, deployed relatively new and untested technology to reinvent the delivery of educational content as COVID-19 rendered traditional classroom technology obsolete. My task was to help them put into perspective the enormity of their success throughout 2020 and 2021. “It’s true,” I suggested, “educational outcomes were not the same as in-person teaching. However, if your people had not pivoted and put technology in every home, and found ways to support faculty, students, and parents, it’s likely educational outcome would have evaporated!”
In advance of my time with this incredible group of dedicated professionals, I interviewed several of them to try, in some small way, to understand the enormity of the task handed to them as school doors slammed shut. The heroic stories I heard of the countless efforts put forth by their staffs were inspiring. Many explained how boundaries evaporated. “I had to remind my people to put their phones away. ‘Stop reading texts and emails for at least a few hours each day!’ Some of them would have worked 24/7 had I not put a stop to it,” one CIO told me.
But it was one call that changed the future. That CIO said “My people strive for perfection. I remind them that perfect is the enemy of good. In these times, as painful as it might be, we must often settle for a good solution, because our customers are desperate.” I was touched by that thought, not realizing how powerful Voltaire would become just a few days later.
“My children are with relatives,” she explained when I answered her call on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline the following Saturday morning. “With them out of the house, it would be a good time for me to end my life.” My heart broke for this young mother who believed she could not be the perfect mother her children deserved. To her that meant they would be better off without her. You see, her own parents were, suffice to say, unbelievably far from perfect. Her life was so painful, she wanted her children to have a life the opposite of the one she endured. She loved her children so much nothing less than a perfect mother would suffice.
The turning point came when I reminded her of Voltaire’s wisdom. She paused. “Could you tell me again?” “When only perfection is acceptable,” I said,” you are blind to the loving parent you are; the truly good mother your children have.” “Tell me one more time?” she asked. “Perfect is the enemy of good,” I repeated. She began to cry, and through tears she said, “I’m going to write that down and carry it with me the rest of my life.” A few moments later that call ended with gratitude and tears on both ends of the line.
Two weeks later, in front of more than 80 school district CIOs, I was able to remind them of their value to the children, and future, of Illinois, and I was able to publicly thank one who helped me find a moment of perfection…a moment when the two of us were able to help a young mother find the courage to accept her imperfections, and know that being a good and loving mother was enough.