Beat the Nirvana fallacy: why doing something is better than nothing


Ever found yourself in a position where you were going to contribute to a good cause: for instance, volunteering at a women's shelter to directly help victims of domestic abuse, only to find yourself rebuked a friend who went, "Why bother? More women will just get beat up everyday."

It probably stung. Do you remember how you reacted? Did you decide not to help, or did you press on ahead?

The Nirvana fallacy is for people who waste their lives.

It basically states that if you can't do something perfectly (like solve all spousal abuse problems or world hunger in the twinkle of an eye), then you shouldn't bother at all. The problem with that is simple: there's NEVER a perfect solution, only shades of choices that are better than others, and mistakes you make and can hopefully learn from. Most mistakes aren't grievous and are fantastic "Lego blocks" to build progress upon.

Ramit Sethi, author of the new hit book I Will Teach You To Be Rich, makes this point. He was recently blogged by Will Chen on Wise Bread, and this quote from the book is the moment I knew Ramit was onto quality (as opposed to being just another yappy guru):

It sounds sexy, but when individual investors talk about complicated concepts like this [referring to buzzwords like "hedge funds"], it's like two elementary school tennis players arguing about the string tension of their racquets. Sure, it might matter a little, but they'd be much better tennis players if they just went outside and hit some balls for a few hours each day.

Ramit doesn't specifically cite "Nirvana fallacy", but that's what he's talking about. Everyday progress in increments, even when you don't feel like it, is far better than delaying and waiting for a "perfect day to start getting rich". That day will NEVER come. Ramit also compares personal finance to weight loss — the latter being plagued by buzzwords and too many arguments over which diet works best. I connected fad diets to social media snake oil salespeople earlier, so you can clearly see all these fields have a strong commonality:

Too many words, not enough action.

Words are overrated.

Yes, they have many uses but they're often used as an excuse for action. Words are often a stall tactic to debate points that disintegrate once you begin moving. Just like Tiger Woods must follow through on his golf swing after observing the scene and knowing what he has to accomplish, you must follow through on your plans — which are just theory. Words set the scene for what's to come, but will NEVER be a substitute for making progress, even if it's small victories.

9 steps to combat the Nirvana fallacy:

  1. The vast majority of criticism is useless, as I've written before, so throw away those doubts like you treat email spam. Critics don't like to hear this (and look where they are).
  2. Ditch unsupportive friends and family, or at least distance yourself. Harsh, but they need to be contributing positively to your life (and you to theirs).
  3. If you find yourself in the middle of an argument, whether it's offline or on the Internet, quickly consider (trust your gut) if it's worth continuing. The answer is most likely NO: feel free to stop in the middle of a sentence and leave. Humans are drawn to many self-destructive behaviors and you need to be keenly aware that artificial conflict is bypassed by acting; blabbing on is stupid slop.
  4. Even if you can only devote 15 minutes a day to a goal, that's substantially better than 0. True, many things require intense focus, so ask yourself: "What can I chop out of my day? What would I not recall fondly on my deathbed?"
  5. Accept that the biggest gap lays in between not doing something and getting started: your mind may be set against exercise, but once you're mid-routine, it feels easier to climb higher. Think, but don't overthink: always be observant of how your words can flow into actions, and over time, you'll be more confident. The impact of growth becomes most relevant in hindsight, so dive in!
  6. Be biased towards iterating swiftly, which means making many changes in a short period of time so you can spot mistakes and adapt quickly. Do cheap, lightweight experiments to test the waters so even if you fail, it won't destroy your dream. For instance, if you have your sights set on being a master painter, buy an affordable kit and dabble. Not just casually, but make the most out of your tools — really MacGyver 'em! Then, you can tell in weeks, even days, if you're ready to move up.
  7. It pays to be prolific. You simply can't gain experience in work or play without putting yourself through a variety of life situations. Some of these can be accelerated (making productivity more enjoyable), others can't (pregnancy). The effectiveness of nearly all experiences can be improved by your attitude towards them.
  8. Live with your fears. Things don't turn out the way you expect, but they might turn out better if you allow yourself to be more playful than worried. When I composed music, I was under the pressure to deliver a masterpiece. Then my counterpoint went: "If I have a great idea that doesn't make it into this song, I'll include it in the next one." The ongoing result of pairing courage + prolific-ness was that I had plenty of ideas and plenty of songs, instead of freezing at the starting line.
  9. Realize that combating the Nirvana fallacy, in turn, leads to a heightened state of consciousness — not just a spiritual one, but you can apply that if it suits you. And you'll be more aware of others' failings in the world around you due to lack of action, which means you should give back and encourage more achievements. However, be graceful about how you help others (don't lambast them with words, that's hypocritical).

The above isn't an end-all (like I said, words are overrated), but will help get you started.

The Nirvana fallacy may not be well-known yet (shy of 3,000 Google hits as of this writing), but its effects — too much talk, too little action are a common inhibitor to human potential. In fact, it almost stopped me from writing this article. That's when I ran through the list above, which I've had floating around in my head for some time now, and didn't just decide to do something about it — I did it.

Do you see the Nirvana fallacy taking a foothold in your life? Then it's time (now, not tomorrow) to make your move. Let me know your experiences!

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Guest's picture

Great Post! I needed this today very much.

Andrea Karim's picture

This makes me think of people who like to say "Something worth doing is worth doing well" or "Try not. Do or do not. There is no try" (damn you, Yoda!).

I suppose those ideas are meant to push people to succeed or to avoid half-hearted efforts, but for me, they've always seemed harsh. Why bother if your potential failure means that your attempt wasn't worth anything?

Failing is always more instructive than succeeding. Expecting perfection is bound to lead to disappointment.

Guest's picture

It's refreshing to see someone bring this back into the public eye. I agree that people too many times think their way into deep periods of inaction. The key is to go out and do something even if you know the result isn't going to be 100%. I'd rather have a consistent 80% than weeks of 0% followed by a day of 100%...

Guest's picture

... is "Something that's worth doing is worth doing badly."

Think about it.

Guest's picture
Alex Stanford

Great post, this came at the perfect time for me as well.

Guest's picture

For years I wanted to learn to play a particular musical instrument, and I wanted to write fiction. I was slow to start because I kept waiting for the right time, the right feeling, etc. Finally, I just started. Five years later I can play the instrument decently (and continue to get better) and I have written more than 200,000 words of fiction, some of it quite good. I am waaayyy ahead of where I would be if I had never started (and I doubt that at some point in the future I would have suddenly felt the perfect inspiration and instantly produced a work of shattering genius).

And, come to think of it, it worked for money management too. I used to think I could not start saving until I paid off all my debt. But, finally, I decided to start saving anyway, about 12 years ago. Ten years ago I bought my first house, and over the years I have steadily added to my retirement account, which is now in the healthly 6 figures. Meanwhile, I didn't get all my debt paid off until just this year (except the house - I still have a mortgage).

Guest's picture

It reminded me of my first homework assignment in acting class: come in with one bad monologue. (We did! But we got better.)

The only thing that made me sweat a bit was the thought of sloppy work on hedge funds--no, please, no more! We've had enough of that, thank you very much.

Torley Wong's picture

@Guest: Thrilled you did!

@Andrea: Yoda is a Jedi Grandmaster for a reason, and if he were alive today, he'd endorse Nike's motto.

@Baker: You can bet I'm going to keep bringing it up as it's constantly relevant! Agree with you totally, plus, in most human activities, there's never an absolute 100% — we like to reflect what we might've done better, even years later.

@Margaret: That's great!

@Alex: Awesome.

@Jenniferal: You know what they say about "composing a great piece happens one note at a time". Or with writing, one word. That's why I like looking at Legos and how they're assembled into bigger forms which make construction less intimidating.

Your money management approach is similar to what Ramit Sethi mentions in his book. Glad to hear of your progress.

@A: The "hedge funds" quote should be taken within context, as Sethi calls out the BS and fear that financial advisors (not all, but many popular and visible "experts") instill in the public.

Guest's picture

I was confronted with the Nirvana fallcy earlier this year. I had always wanted to start a blog, but didn't know the first thing about actually doing it. I wanted it to look professional, and not like some noob's creation. After a few months of reading up on the subject, I decided to jump right in and launch the blog. I didn't know a fraction of what I know now, and somehow was able to get it off the ground. It's still rough around the edges, but it would still be a "virtual" blog had I not thrown caution to the wind and finally started blogging.

Guest's picture

...Ditch unsupportive friends and family...

A very bright acquaintance, (a very wealthy lawyer, too), told me how he handled his family after repeated cruel instances: when they called, he was not upset and did not yell or slam the phone. he calmly told them that he had considered their relationship and felt there was no need for any more contact with them. Then he quietly said goodbye and softly hung up.

That is some of the best advice I've ever gotten.

Guest's picture

Great post.

I call this concept, Progress Over Perfection. That it is better to achieve progress than achieving perfection. While you are trying to perfect something before starting or releasing it, you could be making progress or improvements instead. We are all guilty of analysis paralysis to some degree . . .

You could apply this concept to almost every aspect of your life:

Your work life (Where I heard it)
Your relationships (Family and friends)
Your finances (Income, expenses, debt, etc.)
Your lifestyle (Self-Sufficiency)
Your projects (Garden, business, DIY)
The list could go on and on . . .

Guest's picture

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