The Nirvana fallacy: when perfectionism leads to unrealistic solutions

Reading time: 6 minutes

“Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” wrote Voltaire in 1772—which translates to “better is the enemy of the good”, but is often translated as “perfect is the enemy of the good.” The Nirvana fallacy consists in comparing existing solutions with ideal, perfect ones—which are often unrealistic. A form of perfectionism, the Nirvana fallacy can lead to dangerous thinking and harmful decisions.

Perfectionism and the Nirvana fallacy

The term Nirvana fallacy was inspired by the work of Harold Demsetz, who was an American professor of economics at the University of California at Los Angeles. “The view that now pervades much public policy economics implicitly presents the relevant choice as between an ideal norm and an existing imperfect institutional arrangement. This nirvana approach differs considerably from a comparative institutional approach in which the relevant choice is between alternative real institutional arrangements,” he wrote in 1969 in Information and Efficiency: Another Viewpoint.

Also called the “perfect solution fallacy”, the Nirvana fallacy is based on faulty reasoning, where an argument assumes that a solution should be rejected because some part of the problem still exists after the solution is applied. Many people falling prey to the Nirvana fallacy presume that a perfect solution does exist. In those cases, the Nirvana fallacy is a combination of wishful thinking and black-and-white thinking.

While the Nirvana fallacy may seem harmless enough, it can actually lead to flawed decision-making with real-life consequences, which can sometimes make the difference between life and death. Whether in designing public policies, corporate rules, or in your personal life, being aware of the Nirvana fallacy is crucial to avoiding dangerous missteps.

The danger of false dichotomies

A false dichotomy is a thinking error in which a statement wrongly assumes an either/or situation, when the two solutions are in fact compatible, or there is actually a third potential option. The Nirvana fallacy leads to false dichotomies in which we assume the existence of a perfect solution that’s incompatible with the current imperfect solution, or completely reject the existing solution because it’s not perfect.

Solutions that improve safety but do not completely eliminate a risk are often the victim of the Nirvana fallacy. For instance:

  • Fallacy: “Wearing a mask is useless because it will not fully protect me or others from coronavirus.” While masks do not provide full protection, some protection is better than none. The fallacy is to not wear a mask before it doesn’t fully prevent the risk of transmission.
  • Fallacy: “Seat belts are a dumb idea, people who wear a seat belt still die in car crashes.” The goal of seat belts is to reduce a person’s risk of dying in a car crash, not to completely prevent that risk. The fallacy is to not wear a seat belt because it doesn’t provide full protection in the case of a car crash.
  • Fallacy: “Making underage drinking illegal is nonsense, because kids who want to buy alcohol will always find a way around the rules.” The minimum age for drinking exists to deter underage drinking, not to totally eradicate it. The fallacy would be to abolish the laws on underage drinking because they fail to 

In each case, the danger is clear: by aiming for a perfect solution, we may ignore a useful solution; by aiming to completely solve a problem, we may fail to at least improve a situation.

A perfectionist mindset could even prevent you from getting started or finishing a project. Because you may not have the perfect website design, you will not launch a project. Because you haven’t found the perfect email service provider, you will not start a newsletter. Because you haven’t finished your coding course, you will not start building your first web application.

The good news is: there are practical strategies you can apply to manage this perfectionist mindset and avoid false dichotomies in your work and life decisions.

How to overcome the Nirvana fallacy

Focusing on incremental improvements, setting intermediary deadlines, and improving your metacognitive skills will help you avoid, spot, and correct the Nirvana fallacy.

  1. Focus on incremental improvements. A key reason why we fall prey to the Nirvana fallacy is our desire for perfection. Instead of aiming for the perfect solution, aim for a better solution. All these tiny improvements will compound, leading to massive changes over the long term. It’s better to run for ten minutes everyday than stay on your couch because you’re not yet able to run a marathon; it’s better to read one page everyday than never touch a book because you know you’re a slow reader; it’s better to try one simple recipe every week than to never use your stove because you never learned how to bake a cake. Over the long run, incremental improvements are more impactful than big, unstainable jumps.
  2. Set intermediary deadlines. Big deadlines far in the future can lead to perfectionism by giving us the illusion of productivity. We spend lots of time planning, tinkering with a font on our website, researching different tools, reading tutorials, debating which framework to use, and we don’t produce much work. Why rush, since the deadline is in such a long time? By setting intermediary deadlines, we can force ourselves to make tangible progress. Yes, the intermediary output won’t be perfect nor complete, but it will be an actual step towards your final goal.
  3. Improve your metacognitive skills. Keep your perfectionist mindset in check. Make time for self-reflection to understand why you are making certain decisions, or why you are not making progress on a specific project. Is it because you are striving for an inexisting perfect solution? Is it because you are assuming that the current solution is not good enough? Learn to recognise when good enough is really good enough. Journaling is a great tool to better understand and recognise instances of the Nirvana fallacy.

Remember: perfect is the enemy of the good. While being a perfectionist is seen by many as a compliment, it can in fact get in the way of progress. The Nirvana fallacy can even lead to dangerously bad decisions. Instead, build a compounding machine where tiny improvements and intermediary deadlines slowly but surely bring you closer to your goal, and learn to pursue good enough ideas instead of striving for perfect—and unrealistic—solutions.