The Right Way vs. Just Getting It Done

First, let's start out with a garden picture because I'm incredibly proud of my poppies:

Black Swan Poppy.  Insanely cool, right?!

Black Swan Poppy.  Insanely cool, right?!

Now for the content:

Doing jobs correctly the first time was a value that my parents, particularly my father, instilled in me from an early age, and it's something that I still value very deeply.  The flip side to this is that (1) it's not always necessary to do something perfectly (2) it's not always possible to do something perfectly and (3) you might only have a limited window of time to bring something out and the best way to do it may be too slow.  This dichotomy between the "right" way to something versus just getting it done is usually pretty cut and dry for me: the right way is what I do barring mainly cost or time (cost is really the limiting factor for me these days).  In practice though, when I'm not completely living in a bubble, that doesn't work as I'd like it to 100% of the time.  

A lot of folks have explored this dilemma in many different contexts.  For example, I just read a nice essay the other day exploring the programming languages C and LISP (http://www.jwz.org/doc/worse-is-better.html), where the author recognized that while LISP is "better," C's success over LISP is a direct reflection of the fact that the "right" way to do something in the world is perhaps ultimately a flawed approach.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is another example, albeit with a much larger scope, discussing the building of an entire metaphysics around this concept of the "right" way to do something, or the "quality" of something.  In math and physics, we often talk about the "elegance" of particular theories, proofs or approaches to problems.  In my head, "elegance" is quite synonymous with "quality" or "rightness" and is ultimately, something to strive for.

I meet this dichotomy more often than I probably should, as in, I see it every day, in almost every action of every person I encounter, including myself.  Especially myself.  I insist in my life that I do things the right way barring the literal inability to get them done, and if it's a time thing, I tend to come back later and finish what I couldn't get done the first time.  This applies to projects, cleaning, unclogging toilets (woke up to THAT fun job this morning), math, science, etc.  There's a whole rabbit hole in discussing "quality" I find around me (often, unfortunately, very little) that I'm going to do my best to avoid that here and focus on things that only concern me, but it'll tie in a little later in a hopefully non-rant way.

There are two parts to this desperate search for quality for me: (1) Quality in my work and (2) Quality in my life.

Work:

Ultimately, my goal in science (I'm currently a grad student in medical physics) is that in my life I contribute something that people look back on and describe as "elegant" or at the very least can see the effort that I put into it.  But because I desire that so badly, I have a tendency to ruminate on getting something right, rather than just getting something done.  I know from experience that the more you can envision the goal or final product, the better your work will be leading up to it, but the challenge is that often the goals change in the process so all of that work may be for naught, and also, you won't be able to envision the end result of anything truly novel!  Of course XKCD summarizes that exact point well in the context of writing code: 

More and more I'm starting to suspect that the examples we hold of "quality" and "elegance" in science are things that people sometimes just stumble over, or one person in a billion is gifted enough to see clearly (here's looking at you, Gauss), but it's not necessarily something that is just arrived at... at least for me.  It's tough because I feel like I'm wasting time when I'm trying to not focus on my lack of "elegant" problems and solutions in my life, or when I feel like I have a hundred things to focus on that are just menial, quotidian bullshit, but honestly, I think that's where the inspiration has to come from.  

It seems obvious that nothing that we do is perfect the first time we do it, but now that that goal feels within striking distance in some ways, I feel compelled to get as close to it as possible.  I think my work would benefit though from a little less focus on a perfect ending that truthfully probably doesn't exist, and focus on getting stuff done, because frankly, I'm pretty good at that and think that I have a lot I can contribute.  

Life:

Whoo boy.  This is where I have to be careful not to get rant-y.  

Let's just say that many people in LA and the greater world, from architects (here's looking at you every not-$2500-per-month building designer in LA), random people, to my friends, and coworkers don't identify this stuff the way I do.  A big motivator for me to do thing the right way is that I know firsthand what it takes to mop-up (literally and figuratively) after someone who hasn't done a job correctly, and I never want to put someone else in that position.  I have a tendency to take it personally when others don't see it that way, or deliberately choose to not do the best job they could. That translates to more work for someone else, or a less positive life experience for the people that have to interact with what they've done.

I have a thousand stories here, but instead of sharing them I'll just say that when I joke about wanting to move up on a mountain some day, this is why: I value quality in everything that I do.  When I'm in a place like LA, it's to a fault (it just gets lost), but when I'm either on my own or in a supportive community that quality elevates the world we in which we live.  I could perhaps switch that off, but I've decided that don't want to.  The way I see it, if we all would chip in a little more than we take (or hell, at this point just break even), the world could be a truly incredible place, and I'm not ready to give up on that yet.  I hope I never do.  That being said, it's hard not to feel like a sucker cleaning up after everyone... like plunging a the only available toilet in our apartment this morning that I had absolutely nothing to do with closs  I don't have a solution for that.

***

"Life" doesn't have "elegant" solutions the way that my work does.  So I think I need to get a little less hung up on the "right" solution at work, but knowing that's where I want to ultimately end up I can always strive for it.  As for life, man I don't have any answers there other than that if you read this and think "hell yeah!" I hope that we meet and form a long-lasting friendship.  I'm gonna keep doing what I do, and probably be frustrated as hell, but maybe I can inspire a couple of people to do it with me.

<3,

John