The Struggle for Good Enough

I was angry. I was right. And as usual, it didn’t make a bit of difference.

We were building a woodshed to earn our keep, and my father Rick and I were each adamant about our own, contradicting design decisions. My way would make the roof stronger. His would get the job done faster. Either way, our materials were poor salvage and the sun was too hot.

And Rick’s way was wrong.

A month and a half earlier, in winter, we had together borne witness to another act of treason, this time in fire-building. Rick taught me how to make a fire when I was five years old, and he’s been chopping kindling for far longer than that, so we have some experience with fire building.

And this was simply wrong.

Diminutive Tia Paty had shoved a large chunk of hardwood into the back of her woodstove oven, her creased hands breaking a couple of smaller twigs to throw in afterward. And then a wad of paper, shoved in last as Rick and I exchanged glances, aghast.

But it was her house, and cold without a fire. Surely, she must know how to warm the place on a winter night?

In the matter of woodshed building, Rick has some experience as well. He built a house for himself when he was seventeen, and it’s still doing fine; I visited my uncle there this summer. And our woodshed, raised some fifteen years ago, shelters the wood we chop to this day.

But to my fresh young eyes, my logical studying-to-be-an-engineer mind, the strength of this new woodshed’s roof was in peril if we carried on as Rick proposed. Our tools and boards were poor enough, so we should build it as strong as possible.

Rick told me I was being silly, and for some reason, as tends to happen, we did it his way.

This was a few months ago now, and I haven’t been back since, but my guess is that the woodshed stands, and its roof is fine. It was strong enough the next day, when we knelt on its boards to tack on tar paper and aluminum, and the day after that it remained too, despite strong winds in the night.

But why was I so concerned at the time?

I think there is a danger in knowing the right way to do things, the theoretical best construction and materials. Or rather, there is danger in the separation between the right and the real world.

Sure, some of us will go on to design airplanes, computer parts, high-precision robotics. That’s the time to be right. But most of the time? People just want the job done. They want it to work, and then they move on to the next thing.

With the woodshed, my way, while maybe a little stronger, would have taken a few more hours in the hot sun. And since our time was limited, we might have built a really solid foundation, but not had time to finish.
Often, our time or resources are the limiting factor.
Maybe you, like us, will be working with the lumber scraps you found in the backyard, or you have nails at hand when getting screws would take another run to the hardware store.

Maybe you have the materials and expertise, but the use you’ll get out of your product isn’t worth the time it takes to do it perfectly.

And maybe you’re the only one asking for perfection in a project that to everyone else, is just today’s problem, something to get done.

Our woodshed, once finished, was just what we were asked to build. It covered the wood, and no one had to go shopping, even though our lumber was warped and the nails a little too long.

We finished it in a couple of days, rather than a week, and we made it well, if not perfectly.
And then we moved on.

Tia Paty’s fire lit, by the way. It lit quickly and easily, and we shrugged off our astonishment over hot food and warm hands.

And when I built the fire in the “right” way, it worked about the same. And we didn’t worry about it, because in the real world, the “right” way doesn’t matter, as long as it’s good enough.