The quest for the perfect word (and other useless endeavors)

Gates Foundation, Jeff Raikes, perfectionism, le bon mot, words, languageI love French. I really do. The way everything sounds so sophisticated and deep, even if they’re really just talking about grocery shopping or mowing the lawn.

<start brief personal interlude> From Kindergarten through Grade 2, I was in French immersion. After a brief hiatus from Grades 3 through 6, I picked it back up in Grade 7 and I’ve been been at it ever since. This franco-focus culminated in me spending a year at the university where all French folks with ambitions of making the world a better place through policy and/or politics go, Sciences Po. <end brief personal interlude>

You think I love words? These people were/are obsessed. Obsessed! I sat, bewitched and bemused, as they debated endlessly about which word was le bon mot–the right word. And by “right”, they meant perfect.

Fast-forward a few years (or decades, whatevs, who’s counting?) to this morning when I was reading Jeff Raike’s post on perfectionism. He points out that our question for perfectionism carries a big risk: that in our effort to avoid failure, we narrow our options to those that are  low-risk and achievable, rather than risky and remarkable.

Organizations–probably yours–fall into this trap when it comes to words. All the time. Constantly. Thus all those boring thank you notes. Thus yawn-worthy newsletters. Thus homepages that you have to read twelve times in order to even kinda sorta get what they’re saying because you keep nodding off.

Words are cheap. Don’t waste your time always looking for le bon mot. There’s a time and place for that. It’s called happy hour in a Parisian cafe. Unless that’s where you work, take off your beret and get back to work.

There are two notable exceptions to this “Good-And-Done-Is-Better-Than-Perfect-And-Drove-You-To-The-Brink-Of-Insanity” rule:

  1. You’re about to invest thousands of dollars in a printed piece: In these instances, spend some QT finding exactly the right words. (And while you’re finding the right words for that piece, I’d also recommend you hack about 50% of the words you’re planning to use because people will only skim the piece anyway, but that’s a post for another day…) 
  2. Subject lines of emails: Most people agonize over the content and then dash off the subject line. Reverse that. Nail your subject line and make sure the content is good.

Aside from those two exceptions, your quest for the perfect word is in all likelihood preventing you from achieving your goals–both the little, tiny, risk-free ones AND the great, big, awesome, this-world-is-truly-better ones.

Words are cheap. Take some risks. Scary though it may feel in the moment, you’ll be happy you did.

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