“Nirvana was huge, but it didn’t appeal to everyone.” ~Eddie Van Halen
I’m engaged in a lot of conversations around campus about solving problems and making improvements. It is something I’ve spent my career engaged in at all levels of institutions and organizations. Organizations, like institutions of higher learning, must continually evolve. As I mentioned in an earlier post, higher education is a complex living organism shaped by centuries of culture, policy, perception, and need. Internally, this complexity means carefully navigating and cajoling various and disparate stakeholders toward improvements or change.
As a result of these complexities and disparate constituencies, a common response to suggestions about improvement, support for an initiative, or even rebuttal to criticism is that “______ won’t work for all disciplines or departments, so it isn’t worth doing.”
This is the Nirvana or perfect solution fallacy. An argument that gets used in all sorts of debates where realistic solutions or suggestions are compared to an idealized or perfect world solution and rejected because it does not meet this impossible standard. Perhaps even more disheartening than hearing this fallacy used by smart folks is when smart folks allow the fallacy to dismantle progress.
Nirvana is for the Faint of Heart
There are any number of things happening when someone is using the nirvana fallacy to object to a reasonable solution that might not be perfect but is better than doing nothing. The fallacy is just a mask for the real issues underlying the conversation. The issues are manifold but here are a few common ones I’ve found.
- They person doesn’t understand the problem completely, the importance of the problem, or the context of the problem.
- They don’t share the same sense of urgency or priority as you do for the problem.
- They might just be afraid to make a change to something unfamiliar or different.
- They don’t see the situation as a problem or just don’t want you involved.
- They just don’t have the time deal with it.
Regardless, the fallacy masks a weakness in their position that needs to be addressed.
If you’re on the other side of the conversation and you don’t address the fallacy head one it means something similar; a weakness in your own argument. More than likely you don’t have a clear sense of the situation, problem, or the importance of addressing things at this time. I’ve also found that when the fallacy disarms a conversation it means that the problem isn’t a priority so the mask of a nirvana fallacy just takes apart the conversation.
Moving beyond Nirvana
With all this in mind, let’s move beyond the nirvana fallacy in our conversations. Which might be easier
said written than done. I’ve got a few suggestions that have worked for me in various situations to dismantle the fallacy and move the conversation back into the reality of what is possible, probable, and necessary.
First, be prepared. It isn’t just the motto of the Scouts you see, it is a mantra for leadership. Prepare the conversation by being well-read about it, seeking out solutions from other contexts, determining the true importance and priority of the problem, and aligning the problem and need for resolution to institutional strategic planning. Likely in this you will either strengthen your position of self-determine that you don’t really have a priority problem to handle at this point. If you do, then what comes next might help with the conversation.
Option 1, there’s something to be said for being courageous and candid enough to kindly mention the fallacy in the conversation. Sometimes calling out the fallacy has led to some very real conversations about why my colleagues were not interested or able to pursue the solution; in some cases even the conversation.
Option 2, is to question the other party about what solution they recommend. If your’s is not perfect enough, then they must be able to offer an alternative that might be better than yours. More often than not, this meets with an “I don’t know” response which breaks down the barriers to having a deeper conversation about why nothing should be done in the absence of the perfect solution.
Option 3, explain in direct and honest terms the nature and gravity of the problem. Call on your colleagues to rally to the cause and the need to solve this problem for the good of the institution or organization. It might be an appeal type fallacy in some regard but a strong linkage to priority is difficult to ignore.
Perfection is in the Process
Maybe it is worth even explaining that there is no perfect solution and that any perfection we’re seeking is in the process of improvement itself. Long ago when I began to write seriously I was getting hung up on being perfect. This led to bouts with writer’s block that would spill over into my other work. The perfectionism stopped my progress.
It took a mentor of mine to teach me that perfection is in the process; not the product. That without something in our hands to work with, we can never make any progress. It is all vaporware until we have something to work with together. This freed my mind to trust my colleagues with my ideas and my works. I could offer a possible solution and let myself be free to edit and seek alternatives. In a very real way this knowledge unblocked my mind.
The same goes for our nirvana fallacy conversations. We must not allow ourselves to do nothing in the absence of nirvana. There’s a lot of truth to the sayings:
“Perfect is the enemy of good.”
“Sometimes good enough is good enough.”
I’ve run into a lot of projects that were stalled or shelved because someone pointed out that they were just not perfect and therefore should not be pursued. What are you working on that has been roadblocked by nirvana? I’d love to learn how you’re working around the blocks and onto success. Send me a message and let’s talk.
I found these resources helpful in learning more about the nirvana fallacy. Maybe you will too.
- The Logic of Science’s post titled The nirvana fallacy: An imperfect solution is often better than no solution.
- Wikipedia’s entry on the matter.
- Logically fallicious’s post on the subject