Perfectionism vs. Excellence

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Crossing the
faint line between genius and madness undermines productivity. So
does crossing the equally faint line between excellence and perfectionism.

In 1975, I
attended a conference of mostly post-doctoral economics students
and professors. The featured speaker was F. A. Hayek. He was 76
years old, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics the previous
year. He continued to write for another decade, including his final
book, The
Fatal Conceit
, a critique of the dying socialist idea, which
was published in 1988. He told us that it is a mistake to strive
for perfection when writing a book. It is better to get it into
print and then revise it if it goes into a second edition. He could
have added, “which very few books ever do.”

I had been
given much the same advice a decade earlier by my seminary professor,
Cornelius Van Til. He wrote a lot of books over the years, but he
also wrote printed materials he called syllabi. They functioned
as books. His students read them, although he did not assign them
in class — or his books, for that matter. They were sold at the
seminary’s book store. Word got out. Other interested readers bought
them. There were steady sales of his syllabi for at least forty
years. They were typewritten and published in mimeographed form
initially, later by offset printing. They were spiral-bound in the
1950’s and 1960’s. He never revised them, which he could have done
with any of the later editions. His book publisher would have turned
them into typeset books. In 1969, his book publisher at long last
did pick up five of them, which I had bought in spiral-bound form,
and released them as paperbacks. Yet he still referred to them as
syllabi, not books. This tactic enabled him to deal psychologically
with his perfectionism demon by means of his syllabi angel, rather
than by the more time-consuming method of actually revising the

I understood
why Hayek and Van Til recommended early publication. The ideas are
what count. If you have something to say, put it in print.

Yet their
advice is not taken by most college professors, who do not write
books. A young professor may take his Ph.D. dissertation and get
it published by a university press. He may break up chapters into
the format of journal articles, rewrite them slightly, and then
submit them. Unless he teaches at a university that has the publish-or-perish
requirement, which only the top three dozen do, he never goes to
the pain of writing another book.

a significant percentage of students who advance to the dissertation
level never complete their dissertations. This is so common that
there is a separate academic category for them: ABD (all but dissertation).
These people are the proletariat of higher education. They never
receive a full-time offer from a four-year institution. They labor
part-time for $20 an hour or less in a community college, probably
never receiving full-time faculty status.

What is the
problem here? These people have a mental block about handing a finished
product to a committee to evaluate on this basis: “This is the best
I can do.” They fear rejection. It is easier to drift away and be
forgotten as another ABD. It is much the same with people who get
their Ph.D. degrees, but then never publish anything except their
revised dissertations.


I have described
the academic world’s manifestation of the perfectionism affliction.
An individual would rather not publish than open himself up to public
criticism: from a dissertation committee, then from a book manuscript
committee or, post-publication, to a book review in a scholarly

I studied
under two men with this affliction. They are both dead now. One
was a historian of the Renaissance era, who also taught medieval
history. The other taught church history. Both of them read at least
half a dozen languages. Both had photographic memories. Both were
poor lecturers. Both had no perceptible theory of history by which
a student could conclude that one fact is more important than another.
Both of them avoided writing books. I believe that their ability
to pack their minds with innumerable facts crippled their ability
to assess the importance of these facts for a single writing project,
and then discipline themselves by the rigors of a theory to drop
the vast majority of these facts.

The church
historian at an evening church meeting would sometimes challenge
the attendees to give him the name of any of the hundreds of hymn
writers whose names were in the hymnal. He would then provide a
brief history of the person’s life and influence. Yet I never heard
him mention even one sentence in class about the importance of hymns
in the history of the church. For him, the writers’ names were just
data for his collection of facts, like the train schedules he would
also memorize just for fun. He had a near-perfect memory. This paralyzed

There is one
person above all who is so afflicted: Kim Peek. He was the primary
model used by Dustin Hoffman in Rainman.
Peek reads at astounding speeds: at least 9,000 words per minute.
A typical book page has 400 words. He reads the left page with one
eye and the right page with the other. He has a recall of better
than 98% a few hours later. He has read about 8,000 books this way.
When he is finished reading, he puts the book back on the shelf
upside-down or spine-side in, so that he will not read it again
by accident. He can summarize anything he has read. He cannot assess
its importance. You
can see several videos of Peek in action here.
They are astonishing.

He has not
written a book on any of the 15 subjects in which he is considered
a fact-master. He cannot even dress himself.

This is perfectionism
in action, meaning inaction. We would all like to be able to read
at 8,000 words per minute with 98% recall. What a blessing! But
if this ability would keep us from applying this mass of information,
it would be a curse.


The best academic
balance I have seen in combining an enormous mass of facts in multiple
academic and cultural fields, combined with theory-governed analysis
of these facts, leading to a huge published output, was the career
of Murray Rothbard. Close behind him was R. J. Rushdoony, who read
more than Rothbard did: a book a day, marked up and notated, for
60 years. His published output was less, though not if you count
his sermons. The conservative author, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn,
read about a dozen languages and traveled on every continent except
Antarctica every year, did not write much, but he had a comparable
range of topics as Rushdoony had, and in more languages. His equivalent
today is the philosopher David Gordon, who does not travel much.
His specialty is book reviews. The thought of having Gordon review
their books may be what keeps so many scholars from writing books.

I suppose
the ultimate master of output was Isaac Asimov, who wrote or edited
over 500 books and who is the only author with at least one book
in every major category of the Dewey decimal system except for philosophy.
Yet he is remembered mainly for his science fiction novels, which
are characterized, as he admitted, for being almost entirely dialogue
without any action. With a photographic memory and flawless high-speed
typing, he could write a non-fiction book in a week. The fact-checkers
had almost no corrections to make. For a bibliography of his books,
— just to see for yourself:

this output, add his 464 boxes of personal papers. (I have maybe
three file drawers.) This is the output I would like to have produced.
It is too late now. It was too late the day I was born. But the
world has few Isamovs. They remind us of what can occasionally be
accomplished, not what should be planned ahead of time.
must tell my favorite Asimov story. This is a classic case of motivational
manipulation. During his nine months in the Army in 1946, he wanted
to avoid the really bad jobs that privates normally get. He could
type incredibly fast. So, when he was sent to a new base, on the
first day, at 5:05 p.m., he walked into the typing pool’s office
and asked the desk sergeant if he could use a typewriter to type
a letter to his wife. “Sure, soldier,” was the reply. He put a piece
of paper in the machine and started to type, which he did at 80
WPM or so. The sound carried across the empty room. The sergeant
was his side within minutes. “Say, soldier, we could use someone
like you in this office. Would you like to sign up?” Poor, naive
Isaac the grunt said, “I guess so, sergeant. I just got to this
post. You’ll have to contact my commanding officer. I haven’t been
assigned to anything yet.” Done. He made it to corporal this way.]


Toyota is
famous for its policy of constant improvement. It goes to great
lengths to persuade workers to suggest ways to improve productivity
on the line and anywhere else. It has done this for over five decades.
The company got the idea from W. Edwards Deming. Toyota adopted
his techniques in 1950 under the assumption that he was an influential
American guru in mass production techniques. This was an illusion.
He was barely known in the United States until three decades later,
after export-driven Japanese firms began cutting into American markets.

Deming had
14 points for improved production. If Woodrow Wilson had adopted
Deming’s 14 points rather than his own, the world would be a far
safer, richer place. For Deming’s 14 points, click

A policy of
constant improvement is important for both productivity and reputation.
It requires attention to detail. It requires a nearly religious
commitment to making things better for the customer. This is the
way of the free market. It produces small, barely noticeable progress
in any year, yet over decades, the whole world gets changed.

Most people
do not possess this outlook. It must be taught to them. They must
adopt it, implement it, and see its results. Even then, it is rare.
“Good enough” is the great enemy of “better.”

I went looking for a way to donate to a ministry that digs water
wells in Africa. These wells are a low-cost way to change the lives
of entire villages. The illness rate falls. So does the young child
death rate. Women who spend several hours a day walking to and from
water sources can devote this saved time to starting a business
or working more efficiently at home. It costs about $5,000 to sink
one of these wells.

I searched
on Google, using the ministry’s name and the words “water wells.”
Up popped a page. I clicked. The page did discuss the project, but
it was filled with typographical errors. The apostrophes had been
converted to question marks. It had been on-line for two years.
Also, the type face was small, making it difficult for visitors
to read it. There was a Feedback button, but it was dead.

I sent an
email warning of these problems. I got a letter back from the person
in charge of the site. He informed me that he knew about these problems.

am aware of the apostrophe issue. We still have some archive columns
like this, since we moved from a Microsoft server to a Linux server.
We will continue to clean up the older articles, but given the lack
of staff, it could take a bit longer. About 100 pages have been
updated so far.
Notice the words,
“given the lack of staff.” This is a very large ministry. It raises
a lot of money. What these words really mean is “given our lack of
interest regarding our Website.” Then he gave a suggestion to me regarding
font size.
on the sizing issue, we have had complaints that it is too small,
so we’ve tried to standardize the page size according to similar
websites. One option you may consider is to not use the larger screen
resolution, but use the font size setting in the browser to enlarge
text. This will keep the width the same, but push the text down
the screen.
In short, “the
visitor is to blame.” Visitors with a lot of money to donate tend
to be older than age 50, and their vision is not good. I set my site’s
screen to 800 x 600 pixels — the highest setting — because I do
not have a 21-inch screen or 21-year-old eyes.

I will admit
that when I re-checked the page, the corrections had been made.
But webmasters should be under constant, unrelenting scrutiny by
senior managers to keep the sites up to date, without known errors,
and — above all — designed for people with disposable income,
which means older people.

are under age 30, are paid little, and do not have any idea about
the needs of older viewers, or color-blind viewers, or viewers’
problems reading white print on a black or dark blue or (unbelievable!)
brown backgrounds. They want to have “neat” sites, as defined by
other low-paid programmers. Even worse, some of them want to be
artsy. They do not understand this law of direct-response marketing:
“Artsy reduces sales . . . even when selling art.”

Your potential
competitors are not internally driven to improve performance. They
are content to just get along. This is suicidal in the long run.

So, you can
gain an advantage.


I first heard
this phrase in the movie, The
Right Stuff
. This was the description of the mission, supplied
by Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier
in level flight in 1947. At the time, he had two broken ribs.

This phrase
has entered the vocabulary of Americans. It is applied to high-risk
innovative projects that might fail, with serious consequences for
the people who attempt them. They are usually all-or-nothing projects.

Most of us
are rarely if ever directly involved in such projects. This all-or-nothing
outlook is contrary to the principle of risk-diversification, which
is the recommended policy for most people most of the time.

are far more ready to push the edge of the envelope. For the sake
of making money or making history, they invest the bulk of their
assets in these projects. Entrepreneurs have a unique mentality
that persuades them that they can overcome all barriers, and even
if they fail, they will rebound. They will regain their wealth and
try again, though perhaps in a new field.

Very few people
have this outlook. Like people who will not work on high-rise construction
projects, most people refuse to put themselves into all-or-nothing

I do not recommend
that most of my readers become innovative entrepreneurs who push
the edge of an envelope. I do recommend occasionally pushing the
edge of a postcard.

I started
my newsletter, Remnant Review, in 1974. My wife and I would
stuff envelopes on the living room table. I bought a used hand-stamp
Addressograph machine for about $200 — about $850 in today’s
money. Within two months, I bought a used foot-activated Speed-O-Mat
addressing machine for $500. I also bought a World War I-era dog
tag stamping machine for a few hundred dollars. With these as our
main capital investment, we took the subscription list to over 2,000
people at $45/year in 1978. I took it to 22,000 at $60 over the
next year with a direct-mail piece that made me rich.

At no time
did I push the edge of the envelope, except literally. I used a
low-cost advertising method: running a one-inch display ad in the
“Los Angeles Times” that got people to call a gold hot-line. I converted
calls into trial subscriptions. It was cheap, and it worked. I invested
time and not much money: $700 in answering machines, plus two phone
lines. The ads cost $50 each time. It was a great experience.

Here is my
marketing strategy. Spend very little on a few words in a small
ad, which leads directly to a much larger ad — disguised as valuable
information — that lets you explain in detail exactly why the person
should buy.

This is a
low-cost way to start a new business. Today, the Web offers similar
opportunities. A small display ad or a newspaper classified ad or
an ad on Google’s AdSense or a business card or a postcard will
bring traffic to your site. The idea is to spend very little on
the front end — an ad promoting a page on your site — to generate
money from the back end.


You do not
have to push the envelope to be a success. You should probably avoid
pushing the envelope. Concentrate instead on constant improvement
of products and presentations that have been demonstrated to increase
revenues. Find out what is behind this increase and concentrate

If anything
is worth doing, it is worth doing well. If you know there are problems
with something, fix it or drop it. Don’t keep anything on life-support
that is not contributing to the bottom line. If you have poor Web
pages, drop them unless your site is passive, cheap, and not visibly
related to your company.

The civil
government is marked by old projects that are not allowed to die.
It has employees in long-useless departments in long-detrimental
ministries. Civil government cannot bring itself to let anything
die. This is a major distinction of civil government from the free

paralyzes. Inattention subsidizes incompetence or the appearance
of incompetence. A program of customer satisfaction through constant
improvement is the key to organizational success. Keep hitting stand-up
singles. Home runs will occur occasionally, but do not plan your
strategy in terms of them.

19, 2007

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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