Do Not Pursue Perfection
(This covers the fourth chapter from Rabbi Daniel Lapin‘s book Thou Shall Prosper. Each chapter is one part of a set of core principles that approach business and money as spiritual practices, referred to as the ‘Ten Commandments for Making Money.’ I’m reviewing the fourth ‘Commandment’ here. My plan is to go through all ten. You can find out more in this post discussing my thoughts on the book. All quotes, unless otherwise attributed, come from the book.)
Neither neglect the imperfect nor expend yourself on futile pursuit of perfection, while failing to make the most of less perfect circumstances.
You might be familiar with this statement: “You can want it fast, good and cheap, but you’re only getting two of those three.” I’ve heard it repeated often, and it’s fairly intuitive that it’s true. If we complete a high quality project ahead of schedule we’ve likely blown the budget (or suffered costs in other unforeseen ways). Maybe an aggressive schedule and budget results in frustration when project requirements are overlooked, reviews are not performed, and the quality of the end product suffers. Our judgement can be clouded by the desire for that ideal outcome, and instead of making decisions grounded in reality, we shoot for the moon and fall hopelessly short.
More broadly, some even reject the very idea of doing business because all they see (and are presented with) are it’s imperfections. They cannot comprehend how so many can continue to engage in an activity that is immoral and/or unfair, and they struggle to find a more perfect way to exchange goods and services to combat these perceived failures.
Beyond our careers, the desire to grasp perfection affects the decisions we make regarding our spouses, families, hobbies, and even our politics. We look for each of these to fill in our gaps, and to perform in ways that are, in actuality, wholly unrealistic. Then there’s the way we plan for perfection in ourselves, but I think I’ve belabored the point.
So, instead of pursuing unattainable perfection, what should we do?
1. Become energetic about the second-best solution. The idea is to maximize the potential of a realistic goal, not pine for the unreachable ideal that we wish could be. You can’t approach this as though you are settling for a lesser choice. The ability to consistently achieve the milestones you’ve set is key to long-term success. Each step achieved builds enthusiasm which creates intensity and momentum. If you regard your chosen goal as an inferior one, you’ve erased that momentum before it ever had the chance to build.
2. Avoid envy. It does us no good to spend our time gazing upon the wealth and success of others and wish it to be our own. Part of what drives the desire for the perfect is the envy of what others have achieved. Instead, we should be filling ourselves with empathy and compassion for those who have less, and recognizing the progress that we’ve made and will continue to make. Yes, they are mutually exclusive. One breeds negative thoughts, the other leads to positive ones.
These are a few quotes from the chapter that stood out to me:
Many well intentioned people also constantly convene meetings to probe the root causes of poverty. They question what brought the plane down or why everyone isn’t airborne and wealthy? The answer is simple, if unpopular: Poverty is normal, just as a plane on the ground is more normal than one in the air.
It takes enormous energy to boost a 100-ton airplane off a runway and it takes enormous energy to create a society of wealth. A society of wealth is not made any less amazing by the fact that some or even many individuals in that society own less than many others.
One thing that has become very apparent to me is that I won’t become successful at anything by sitting at my desk watching videos on YouTube. Doing well with my work and my money takes effort. A lot of effort. Anything that matters will take tremendous effort.
Business is a tool of human cooperation, and like any tool, it can be mis-used and abused. However, you should distinguish between judging certain conduct by business professionals as unethical and judging business itself. Only humans are capable of making moral decisions, and only humans can be judged and held accountable for those decisions and the actions that flow from them.
The Rabbi focuses on the tendency of people to allow the cultural bias cloud their judgement regarding business, when they should realize that it is individual members of the business community acting unethically whom they should be judging. I agree with that. I also think the same can be applied to government. Too often the entire government system is painted as corrupt, when we should be judging individual officials.
Later, I wanted my father to explain why he had encouraged me to play with the clocks. His response was that he was waiting for me to discover the moral message of mechanical clocks. … [M]y father believed, and I have since learned, that for perceptive people there is a moral message in almost everything and the challenge to find it can’t start too early. To this day I recall how my father applied that message: Although there are many ways to reassemble a clock, it only runs when you do it the one right way.
I found this part of the book fascinating. The Rabbi obviously advocates a moral message in business, but is there a moral message in marriage? or parenting?
Why should you give away to others something that rightfully belongs to you? Is this because it helps them? No, helping those who have less is a side effect. The main reason is because it helps you. In this context, I recall, as a young student, encountering the Biblical admonition, “You shall not curse the deaf.” This is not because cursing the deaf person will hurt him. Clearly the handicapped human will be quite oblivious to your curse. The reason not to do it is because of what the action does to you.
Our choice to bless or curse those around us has a direct impact on our daily lives. If you want to read the passage he is quoting in full context, it’s Leviticus 19:14.
Finally, for the purpose of dealing with the allegation that business professionals only do what they do out of greed, you need to dispense with the silly notion that in human affairs, intention trumps action. People are mere mortals and often don’t even understand their own real intentions. How can people possibly be so arrogant as to suppose they can determine someone else’s true intentions? It is impossible to know what is in another’s mind, so the only way for humans to judge one another is on their actions, not on their intentions.
I love this point, but I also see an application that leans more internally. Our actions mean more than our intentions. We need to evaluate our actions and ask whether we appear to be acting in service or selfishness.
That’s my take on Rabbi Lapin’s Fourth Commandment for Making Money. Six more to go. Keep looking here for my thoughts on the Fifth Commandment: Lead Consistently and Constantly. Fair warning, it might not come for a couple of weeks. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts and questions about this chapter, whether you’ve read the book or not. Thanks.
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