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What are English equivalents for following Russian idiom: "best is enemy of the good"? In Russian it means that if you are going too much after perfection you may make things even worse instead of achieving of something good.

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    It's originally French rather than Russian, though in the French poem it comes from Voltaire says "A wise Italian says...". So depending on whether he really did borrow it from an Italian source, or if that is a fiction of the poem's, it's either Italian, or else by a fictional Italian who is actually French.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 10:33
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    There's also the opposite maxim: "if something is worth doing, it's worth doing well", which is sometimes mutated to read "if something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly". Commented Jan 3, 2015 at 17:41
  • As a somewhat random side note, there's a Chinese idiom which matches this fairly closely as well: 画蛇添足 huà shé tiān zú ‘to draw a snake and add feet’, that is, to continue embellishing on something until you end up adding superfluous detail that ends up being detrimental rather than useful. Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 7:36
  • Further discussion of this phrase appears at "Don't fix it if it ain't broke" versus "perfect is the enemy of the good".
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 19:20
  • It's "better", not "best".
    – Multifix
    Commented Aug 21, 2021 at 13:11

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This is attributed to Voltaire as ‘Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien’, and occurs in English as 'The best is the enemy of the good.'

However, there appears to be a preference for ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ in American English. Of the 36 records of ‘the enemy of the good’ in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, 22 are preceded by ‘the perfect’ (and, in one instance, ‘perfection’). 10 are preceded by ‘the best’ and 4 by ‘the better’. All four records in the British National Corpus are preceded by ‘the best’. It may be that the expression arose independently in the United States, but that in the UK it was a conscious translation of the French.

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  • Isn't it "better" or "perfect" instead of "Best"?
    – SF.
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 9:41
  • @SF. Not in my experience. The aphorism derives its force from the juxtaposition of the positive ('good') and the superlative ('best'), and it matches the French. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 9:48
  • Very frequently indeed in my experience, changing it to a juxtaposition of relative to absolute.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 10:35
  • @Jon Hanna. I have added to my answer, prompted by yours. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 17:30
  • Huh. I don't think I've ever heard the "perfect" version until now. Of course, the way I usually encounter this saying is in the form of an admonition: "Don't let the best be the enemy of the good", in which form it's known in my circles as Cariadoc's Maxim.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 17:54
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In English it's normally translated as:

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Edit:

A related sentiment with a very different tone is:

Don't worry be crappy.

This play on the song title "Don't Worry Be Happy" though only applies to cases where incremental improvement is possible - a subset of the cases where Voltaire's saying applies. The idea is that releasing something when it still has even clear flaws can in the long term lead to better results (due to feedback, additional funding on the back of the first version, or interest from open-source contributors) than if you waited until that first version was much better.

I've seen people use the first quote to justify the second.

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I've also heard this stated as

A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.

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    George Patton: "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week." Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 12:46
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Too much of anything is good for nothing

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

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  • Welcome to EL&U. We appreciate links to sources which support your answer. :) Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 10:33
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A very similar proverb in English reverses the order of good and best—putting "the good" in the "enemy" position—and as a result conveys the opposite meaning. Here is the entry for that expression in Anne Bertram & Richard Spears, NTC's Dictionary of Proverbs and Clichés (1993):

The good is the enemy of the best. Instead of making things the best that they can, people often settle for making them merely good. [Example 1:] MOTHER: Aren't you going to rewrite your paper? CHILD: Why? It's good enough. MOTHER: The good is the enemy of the best. | [Example 2:] PENELOPE: I think I'll take a course in photography. ALAN: Why? You take perfectly good photographs already. PENELOPE: Maybe, but the good is the enemy of the best.

Although there are certainly lots of proverb pairs that argue in opposite directions (such as "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "out of sight, out of mind"), I can't think of any other pair whose members use so nearly the same form and wording to reach contrary conclusions.

On a structural level, these two expressions suggest a tendency in English to view the thing first identified as "the enemy" of something else in a more negative light than the second thing. So if you say "X is the enemy of Y," you imply that X is undesirable or at fault; but if you say "Y is the enemy of X," you imply that Y is the culprit. And yet, more often than not, viewed objectively, X and Y are mutually antagonistic; and one could express the relationship neutrally as "X and Y are enemies."

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In a workplace environment, I would say "Don't tempt Murphy.", implying Murphy's law (if anything can go wrong, it will) escalates the more a thing is worked on.

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My friend, Steve Adelman, (now deceased) told me his personalized version - "Better is the enemy of good enough." He was an engineer and related this saying in conjunction with a story about working on a metal part. Once he was satisfied with it, he decided to add a few more improvements. As a result, the metal become "work-hardened" and broke off. As he said, you need to know when to stop. Better is the enemy of good enough.

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