Close enough: successive approximations are better than perfection

Girl playing the piano with her right hand.
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Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

“If you can’t do it properly, don’t do it at all.” Did people say this to you all the time when you were young? Does it still echo round your head? This common saying is really unhelpful when learning new skills. Find out how using successive approximations may be better than perfection.

“If you can’t do it properly…”

Whoever spouts this at you is probably feeling pretty grumpy. They’re telling not to bother starting a task if you won’t do a good job. Or they’re saying that what you did already isn’t good enough – and they’re not happy.

So exactly why is this saying so unhelpful? Here are several reasons to stop using it.

1 Implies a high standard is needed

The saying implies you have to reach certain standards. Every time, without exception. And the person speaking sets the standards. Chances are, they want perfection or near to it. No pressure, of course!

2 It blames you

The saying also suggests it’s your fault if you don’t do an excellent job. You’ve “failed” because you’re lazy, careless, or incompetent.

So others could disapprove and judge you as being lacking if you don’t do it properly.

3 Lowers motivation

All this judging can ruin your motivation. It can make you reluctant to start something because you’re scared you’ll mess it up.

It feels too hard to reach the set standard. And you’re expected to have the skills already, rather than learning them as you go. 

So it’s easier to avoid doing the task. That way, you won’t look stupid or inept.

OK, people might be annoyed you didn’t do what you should have done. But at least they can’t criticise your competence.

So you play it safe by putting things off, making excuses, and/or passing the job onto someone else. You’d rather annoy others for not doing it, than be labelled an idiot for doing it badly.

4 Stops you learning

Therefore, this saying may stop you learning. 

Because unfortunately, avoiding things that seem hard means you miss out in the long-run. You don’t get to learn those new skills, or don’t have that new experience.

But those new skills are what could help you reach a higher standard, and be more competent. And in turn, you’d be less likely to be criticised.

Ironic, to say the least.

5 Leads to you feeling bad

Lastly, not only do you miss out on learning new skills, you probably now feel bad about yourself. You’re angry for being so “weak”, “lazy” or “careless.”

That means your self-esteem takes a dive. You think perhaps you are useless or hopeless. Now you’re even more likely to avoid doing other things you’ve been putting off.

So all in all, this saying doesn’t help motivation. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

What’s a better approach?

So what’s a better way? What’s a more encouraging way to face things we’re not sure how to do?

Accept you’re only human

Firstly, accept that you’re only human. And all humans take a while to learn new skills. They also have a habit of messing up with monotonous regularity.

Cut yourself some slack

There may be many reasons why you can’t perform at a high standard when you’re just starting something.

Perhaps you haven’t had much experience in this area. Or you haven’t been taught what to do.

If it’s a physical task, you may not be able to coordinate your movements yet. If someone’s watching, your fear of being judged may make you nervous. That can make you forget steps, or do things differently.

Or you may not be feeling well, and so are performing a little under par.

And mistakes always happen when you’re learning. That’s part of how you learn.

Be realistic

So expecting a perfect result from a beginner (or anyone) is completely unrealistic. No-one can ever reach perfection. And we don’t need perfection in most areas of our lives anyway.

In other words, be kind to yourself.

Don’t stress over mistakes. Instead, view them as little detours along the path to the end goal. Each detour can teach you something you wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

Learn from experience, and put that learning into practice. That way, you’ll really master what you’re doing.

Successive approximations

So instead of expecting perfection when learning skills, take on a new mindset. Don’t expect yourself to perform perfectly, especially when you’re just starting out.

A more helpful concept to consider is that of “successive approximations.” Close enough is better than perfection!

So how do successive approximations work?

1 Start with a rough approximation

Firstly, start with a rough idea of where you want to get. In other words, expect you’ll only reach a rough approximation of the finished skill.

You may only manage the first few little steps. Just be happy if you’re heading in the right direction. Don’t worry about the finer details or the later steps.

For example, think of yourself when you first learned to tie shoe laces.

You didn’t learn how to do it all in one go. Firstly, you learned to cross the laces over. Secondly, you tucked one lace under the other, and tightened them. Then you had to learn several more steps to form the bows. And finally, you had to remember to carry out all these steps in the right order.

Your parent or teacher knew that you couldn’t learn it all at once. They showed you how to do it in stages. That way, you learned each little step before going on to the next one.

Use the same idea now when you’re learning something for the first time.

Work out a list of small steps or goals that will get you to where you want to be. Then start working on the first step. Learn how to do that one before moving on to the next one.

And if you don’t get it right the first time, that’s fine.

2 Get closer and closer as you keep going

You’ll get closer to success each time you try to reach this first little goal. And each time, you’ll be closer to mastering the skill involved.

Praise yourself for what you achieve, no matter how modest. Over time, your accuracy will improve.

When you think you’re close enough to this little goal, move on to the next small step.

Again, you’ll get more accurate as you move closer and closer to this target.

3 Praise small gains

Remember to praise yourself for each new achievement. Allow yourself to feel that small glow of pride at each new step you take. That can be motivating in itself.

However, sometimes you can drop your guard.

You may think you’re going so well that you’ve achieved enough. It can be tempting to think, “Well, that’s enough now. I can stop now.”

4 Keep pushing forward

That’s when it’s important to keep looking forward, rather than back.

Sure, you’re doing well, but now you want to keep up the momentum. Push yourself to learn the next tiny thing you need to reach the next goal. Then you can really be pleased with yourself.

So don’t just keep praising yourself for what you know already.

Start to only praise yourself when you achieve small gains beyond what you’ve achieved already. By praising tiny improvements, and not what you’ve done already, you’ll shape your behaviour in the direction you want to go.

5 Use it for any skill

The idea of successive approximations can be used to teach skills to both adults and children.

For example, teaching your child how to behave well, teaching yourself or others a language or musical instrument, how to play sport, write a novel, or program a computer.

It doesn’t matter what the skill is: the principles are the same.

Praising yourself for what you achieve is kinder than criticising what you’ve done “wrong.”

Starting with “fuzzy” expectations is kinder than expecting perfection. You can’t expect that you or anyone else will pick up complex skills from the get-go.

As another example, you’d never expect to play the piano the first time you tried.

Instead, you’d start by learning how to hold your hands correctly, and where a few notes are on the keyboard. Over time, you’d learn dozens of skills such as sitting with good posture, relaxing your body, reading musical notation, using correct technique to play and so on.

5 Avoid brain overload

However, you couldn’t possibly learn all these skills perfectly at the same time.

Your brain would struggle to take in such huge amounts of information. This brain overload could make you more stressed and less coordinated.

In addition, you might learn some skills more quickly than others. And sometimes you might practise like crazy, without seeing much improvement. You may even feel you’re going backwards.

That’s when it’s important to back off and take things more slowly, no matter what you’re trying to achieve. You can get into a vicious circle of trying harder and harder, but getting worse and worse results.

Being more deliberate and focussed in what you’re doing is the key.

Only expect gradual progress as you aim for each little goal. Allow your brain time to take in new information, and know that progress will slow down until this happens.

6 Stop expecting perfect results

Lastly, stop expecting perfect results.

Praise yourself for persisting. You’ll get there in the end. You’re teaching yourself to be more consistent and determined to achieve.

Your performance will get gradually get closer and closer to your goals, if you keep at it. And you’ll be far less stressed than if you expected instant perfection.

Use successive approximations every day

So how can you apply successive approximations to something you want to learn?

What about watching a few videos of an expert in the field you’ve chosen. They’ll usually start with a breakdown of the skills you need, or a simpler version of the final product.

You may need to watch these videos several times. Take note of any anxiety you feel that you won’t manage this skill.

Let it be there, as you continue to watch and practice. Soon it will fade away, as you start to master each skill.

Remember, your initial efforts may only roughly match what the tutor is doing. However with lots of practice, you’ll eventually move closer and closer to the goal.

Praise yourself for every new bit of knowledge you achieve, over and above what you’ve learned already.

Once you’ve mastered the initial stages, repeat the process with the next few steps. At each stage, only move on once you’ve reached a fair degree of accuracy. But don’t expect yourself to master everything at once.

Finally, after your attempts become increasingly accurate, you’ll reach the end goal. Now your skill level is probably a reasonably accurate copy of the mentor’s output.

It’s up to you how much you then want to refine your abilities.

Achieve your dreams

Of course, this all takes time and patience. But using successive approximations can help you achieve your dreams. It’s a way of reducing the self-criticism or self-doubt that cripple motivation. Mindfulness can also be helpful in reducing the anxiety of learning new skills. 

Anyone can use this method without stress. Praising small successes along the way spurs you on to keep trying. You raise your expectations just enough to challenge, but not discourage yourself.

How much better than the tetchy saying of, “If you can’t do it properly, don’t do it at all.”

In fact, successive approximations is the direct opposite of expecting instant perfection. Perhaps we should say, “Fuzzy expectations keep you trying till you do it better.”

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