Imagine you're a doctor. The doors to the ER fling open and in enters a stretcher carrying a patient whose lungs are in critical condition. Medication isn't working and the best solution would be to transplant a functioning replacement. The problem is that the wait list for a donor runs long and finding an immediately viable replacement on short notice isn't going to work.

Faced with this issue, you wouldn't walk away thinking "oh well, if only we had a lung donor", you would get them on a ventilator in the meantime. Sure the ventilator isn't the perfect solution: it's uncomfortable, it's inconvenient and isn't a replacement for functioning lungs, but what's certain is that it does more good than just standing around waiting.

This is how many of us should embrace better solutions instead of perfect ones and yet many of us succumb to the Nirvana Fallacy that keeps us searching or waiting for the lung donor to arrive.

The Nirvana (or perfect choice) Fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes us to reject imperfect ideas. It is the flawed belief that because a solution to a problem isn't perfect, that it isn't worth pursuing. This bias creates a false dichotomy in the belief that our only choices are to find the perfect solution or accept the current reality when in fact, we can choose the middle path and settle for an improvement.

Here are three examples of the Nirvana Fallacy that might cause harm in your own life and how you can reframe these issues to avoid the costs of searching or waiting for perfection.

"I don't know how to ___"

It's easy to let the excuse for not doing something be that we're not knowledgeable or skilled enough to do it:

  • "I don't know what to do at the gym so I'll wait till I develop the perfect routine."
  • "I need to learn how to cook before I make dinner for my girlfriend."
  • "I'm not an expert so I can't write online."

Reframe: Doing a few pushups, breaking a few eggs and sharing a few thoughts is not only better than doing nothing, it's an essential part of the learning process.

Pushing Down Our Ideas

Doubting an idea because it still has flaws can make us back away from taking risks and suppress our thoughts in group settings. It's valuable to share your ideas whether it's in a business meeting or with a friend seeking advice.

Reframe: Acting on your ideas even though you foresee problems lets you fail faster, learn quicker and do more. Your imperfect but better solution has value and sharing it with others opens up opportunities to fix those flaws. Not speaking up kills confidence and promotes self-doubt and fear.

Searching Instead of settling

There are many cases where we might pour time into searching for the perfect solution. This is an investment that yields diminishing returns and comes with a high opportunity cost. We might spend hours, days or weeks researching the best note-taking app or task management system or morning routine instead of just settling on something that works.

Reframe: Continuing the endless search for the ideal solution is rarely better than just starting with what works. Go from an endless search to an improving system, as the book Make Time tells us: pick, test, repeat. Iterate and improve.

Incremental improvements are what drive growth that compounds over the long term.

Recognise when the ventilator is better than waiting for the lung.

Choose progress over perfection.