I was working on my French and while looking to find the best translation for "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", I also came across "perfect is the enemy of good", for which there is a good French translation already (given that the saying actually comes from French! It's by Voltaire).

In any event, would you say the two have exactly the same meaning? In my view they do; unless the reference to fixing things is not so much about making them better but to keep them from failing. Of course, idea of perfection may also suggest a fault-finding mind at work, I don't know. What do you think?

EDIT: Though I can't pick one answer as THE answer that solves this problem, I do like to thank JOSH, Peter Point, BoldBen, Hot Licks, and the new user200930, who've all added something useful, which has helped me gain more clarity. Thank you.

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    I think he difference is that the first saying refers to something that is already set and working adequately (that you don't need to fix) while the second saying refers to something that is "work in progress" and you are unable to finish it because you are looking for a perfect final result. The first imply the notion of a possible change for a better result (which might have negative implications), while the second refers to the "obsession" for perfection.
    – user66974
    Oct 14 '16 at 5:45
  • I think something has been lost in translation. I've never come across any BeE reference to "perfect is the enemy of good" or, for that matter, in French, but then again I am not a native speaker of the latter. I am still trying to come to grips with reading Asterix in the vernacular; Voltaire is way up there on my reading list for now and all eternity. Oct 14 '16 at 6:10
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    In addition to what J O S H said, note that the tone of the two is very different. Oct 14 '16 at 7:05
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    A good example of the perfect being the enemy of the good is the work of John Harrison who built the first marine chronometer. He fiddled with the design for decades, built a successful one and was finally awarded the huge Admiralty prize for 'fixing the logitude' but never actually put chronometers into proper production. Chronometers only became common when other makers simplified the design. This made them slightly less accurate but brought down the cost allowing time-difference calculation of longitude to become the norm.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 14 '16 at 8:30
  • "The perfect is the enemy of the good" was a popular "buzzword" phrase in US tech circles back around 1980 (as was it's reverse -- something like "the good is the enemy of the better") . It does not quite carry the same connotation as "If it ain't broke...", since the former refers to wasting time/effort achieving perfection in the development of something, while "ain't broke" refers to leaving an already well-functioning mechanism alone, even if it could be theoretically improved.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 14 '16 at 12:35

I can think of three sayings that overlap to some extent but are distinctive in their own ways:

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

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Don't reinvent the wheel.

All three of these expressions promote the idea of functionality or good-enough-ness as the primary goal to focus on in completing (or deciding whether to take up) a project. In particular, they argue for a pragmatic assessment of effort required versus benefit gained in a particular undertaking. All three sayings express a fundamentally cautious, conservative, and perhaps anti-innovative (or at least innovation-agnostic) approach to the status quo.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" amounts to saying "Leave well enough alone." That is, don't change something that already does the job adequately, just for the sake of changing it or in hopes of improving it marginally. As a matter of resource allocation, this makes sense—because if you throw your resources into a project that will at best improve something that already works satisfactorily, you may be missing the opportunity to undertake a different project addressing a genuine problem that, if solved, would yield a much greater return on the investment in time, effort, and money.

"The perfect is the enemy of the good" emphasizes the diminishing returns involved in trying to upgrade something that is not just functional but good to an impossibly high level of excellence. It warns against, in effect, treating a success (achieving something good) as a failure (because it isn't perfect)—because if you continually reject the good thing in the name of serving the (imagined) perfect thing, you may never enjoy the benefits of the good and never achieve the perfect.

"Don't reinvent the wheel" stresses the idea of building on prior efforts in a project to improve something, rather than going back to the beginning of the technology or process and starting from scratch. The point here is that certain established practices, techniques, or insights are useful and ought not be discarded even if the existing product or process needs considerable improvement.

So we have a saying that warns against meddling with a successful process or product ("If it ain't broke, don't fix it"), a saying that warns of the law of diminishing returns with regard to efforts to transform something useful and functional into something flawless ("The perfect is the enemy of the good"), and a saying that warns against too radical a rejection of past achievements in trying to improve on them ("Don't reinvent the wheel").


You're right with Voltaire... who borrowed it to Thomas of Aquinas, 'Concerning faith, best is the ennemy of good'. Did you think of 'we should leave well enough alone'? To me, the difference is rather formal/casual language.

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    Welcome to EL&U! This answer is great but requires some more references so you can prove your answer is right. See How to Answer and take the Tour for more. Oct 14 '16 at 15:56

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