“For want of a shoe”

Alicia Crane WilliamsIn recent years I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I am a perfectionist. Now, before everyone starts hooting with laughter, a perfectionist is not a person who is, or thinks she is, perfect. Rather a perfectionist is forever doomed, being human, to never achieving perfection.  Other terms might be obsessive-compulsive, neurotic, or genealogist.

We are born, I suppose, with this insatiable desire to put puzzles together, and we are never happy if there is one piece left out or misaligned. I try to take comfort in an old story about a Zen gardener who raked the patterns in his garden exquisitely, then purposefully shook leaves from one of the trees so that it would not be perfect. The object of the story being that the beauty of nature does not need perfecting. If so, my genealogies are all beautiful, because they sure aren’t perfect!

Perfectionism is a friend to procrastination. How many genealogies have never been finished because the researcher could never let it go until it was perfect? There are many descendants of Henry Crane of Milton out there still patiently waiting for the genealogy this researcher has been promising for almost forty years. Sigh. All the pieces to that puzzle are in my files, but I haven’t found the “perfect” time to put them together.

Perfectionism is also a friend to doubt. How many genealogies have never been published because the researcher was afraid of being criticized for not being perfect? And, of course, there is nothing that perfectionist genealogists like to do better than find a loose leaf in someone else’s garden! But I truly believe that our compulsion to “put things right” is born out of a universal heart.

The practice of genealogy has “advanced” in recent decades to an ever increasingly exacting science. We take it seriously. Okay, probably too seriously sometimes. Our patient won’t die if we snip the wrong artery, but we will feel that the stars are not properly aligned if we miss something in composing our genealogies. Perhaps we should remember the old rhyme about “For want of a nail a shoe was lost,” then the horse, the battle, and finally the kingdom were lost. If we don’t start somewhere, nothing gets done.

So, to all my fellow perfectionists, the important part is to do our best and keep the rake handy.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

33 thoughts on ““For want of a shoe”

  1. such a wonderful post and one that needs to be said. Perfection is not ours, we are mere mortals and need to share that darn research. Call it version 1.0 and just keep moving ahead…

    1. Alicia and Sandy:
      Excellent thoughts. In another realm, when I have corrected others’ errors, they call me a perfectionist. I would rather that than to be a muddler. My stuff is not perfect, but I try to work in that direction. Procrastinate? Yeah, I do that too.

      1. Richard. People never like to be corrected, of course. But to me objecting to trying to get something perfect would be a lot like settling for the plumbing working every other day.

  2. you have taken the words from my mouth, or perhaps fingers, and the thoughts directly from my brain and heart! yes! this is so true and exactly why my 4 century family history that is planned so carefully in my head, (and for which I really do have extensive research… and not just the “names and dates” but many many fascinating stories of WHO these people WERE!) is NOT published or even written. but is just that. carefully planned in my HEAD. where it does no one else any good. :-/ at least my tree is online, but except for the sources, which I have tried to attach as many as possible (some just aren’t online), but that pretty much IS just names and dates, and not so much the fascinating stories! I really do need to get rolling on that!

    1. Donella, yes, gotta get it out of your head, but do it in small chunks. Many people think it all has to go into one big book. Maybe eventually, but better to do one sketch or one family at a time and get it out into the world.

  3. Alicia – I finally stopped updating my family genealogy last June, indexed the names, locations and pictures, and issued a CD to family members who wanted it. As a retired machine design engineer, this all reminded me of a saying for project, and other, engineers; there comes a time in every project to shoot the engineer and start building (or something similar).

  4. “Perfectionism is a friend to procrastination.” I think Ms. Williams wrote this article for me. I printed it out so I might re-read it often to remind myself that even though I probably won’t ever create something perfect, I still need to do the best I can.

  5. Alicia – You have described the genealogist’s state of mind so perfectly. I began researching the descendants of my 17th Century ancestor in earnest five years ago … how many could there be. Turns out there are a lot! You give me courage to carry on in hopes that a “good” book will provide a path for others.

  6. Perfectionism is the Enemy of the Useful and the Excellent. That’s what publishing on The Web is for–so you can go make corrections without killing more trees. And with so many busy hands out there, eager to help via supervision and so many already well trained, now’s the time! (Cf my next post re MASSOG and ESOG.)

    Really, The Web allows you to create more functional versions of the Mayflower Society’s Pink Books. And then you’ll never need to go to Silver Books at all (& so can avoid that #$#@ decision to deep-six volumes 1, 2 & 3 as numbers–hadn’t any one down there ever heard of “revised edition”?).

    So buy an internet address (the Society’s IT will tell you how re the GM site experience) as http://www.henrycranemilton.org. Ask around for a willing Girl Scout or Boy Scout working on their genealogy badge, and set ’em to typing up your files on Dear Henry. And prominently post on the main page “Corrections Welcomed!”

    What you’ve gleaned does no one any good sitting in your files–not you, not Cranes, not the greater history/genealogy community.

    And I KNOW — because I lost ALL my files.

    1. Bob, my time is booked for a few more years, but as soon as I finish a couple of other projects, Henry Crane will climb the ladder.

      As to MF on the web — I’ve been advocating it for years and who knows what the future may bring.

      1. I am not talking about your direct research/writing time. I am talking about direct & then mostly indirect supervision time in the several stages of creating a Henry Crane project page using a team approach with volunteers you recruit.

        Think of it not as the Finished Bridge your ACE father would admire at the end, but the BLUE PRINT SCHEMATICS that must exist before shovel hits ground. Sure, there’s the pristine file copy all neatly lettered & stamped that sits in the Corps files somewhere in an underground vault: the Perfect Bridge Never Built.

        What’s more important are the Working Copies out in the field, getting folded & refolded, marked up, smudged, etc. that every level of the operation uses & has input on. Real-time input. Interactive. Challengeable. Correctable.

        Just buy the ISP address ($200 per yr at most). Set it up at a host site (go for no ads if you can). Just use simple text format (WARGS was/is a simple text format). But there are a lot of available & free formats out there that will accommodate footnotes, superscripts, etc. The Society’s IT people can advise you how to set yourself up in under a half a day. (Please bring your cred card.)

        Ask around for volunteers among the Crane people themselves. Schedule a Saturday brunch training session at your house, or better at a family restaurant nearby with elbow room. Or create an Advanced Genealogy Course for your local community ed program and just work one night a week with whomever signs up. Or use the Scouts.

        We think of projects as top to bottom To-Dos, and certainly some steps must come before others. But actually the Things of Life run in parallel paths all around use. As in you order the electrical wiring for the building when you order the concrete but you schedule delivery of the former for the month following the pour. Apply Critical Path Method.

        Just turn the to-do pile upside down making Henry Crane no. 1 for, say, Tues., Feb. 3., and on every first Tuesday of the month thereafter. And a year from now your post will be on “So, whatcha think, gang?”

        This is also applies for the Wing Family Association re the Inaccessible OWL.

        To paraphrase Alan J. Lerner — “Don’t talk of genealogy burning with the truth, SHOW ME!”

        1. Oh, all right, all right, Bob. I’ll see what I can on the first Tuesday of the month. Doubt there are many locally available descendants. In my branch of the family my brothers and I are the last for quite a few generations back and the family is not all that large otherwise. Trick is separating them from all the Connecticut, New Jersey and Irish Cranes!

  7. Is your definition of perfection the same as mine, or anyone else for that matter? What a boring world it would be if we all did. Thought your article ‘perfectly’ described a practicing genealogist. Thank you for posting!

  8. “…a perfectionist is forever doomed, being human, to never achieving perfection. Other terms might be obsessive-compulsive, neurotic, or genealogist.”

    And there’s laughter, the perfect antidote. I chortled when I read the line above. A delicious line. As long as we can do that, I think things will balance out. And a little common sense keeping things in perspective.

  9. In my field (computer science) we live by two competing principles:

    (1) The good is the enemy of the perfect


    (2) The perfect is the enemy of the good

    The challenge, of course, is recognizing which of these applies to the current state of the current project!

    1. Frances, that reminds me of the highest praise we could get from my father, “Good enough for Government work.” Although it sounds derogatory, he was a colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers for many years and thus a government employee. The praise was never given until the job was done to his exacting specifications and it was given with pride and a certain defiance against anyone who would criticize government employees! It did not mean it was perfect, it meant that it was a good as we human beings could do and a thing to be proud of.

  10. An outstanding post! And excellent advice for all genealogists. It deserves a wider audience. Would you give permission for my small genealogy society in Washington State to reprint it in our Weekly online bulletin and/or Monthly newsletter. We as an organization have an NEHGS membership and are trying to get more people to use the website and learn from it. this could be a wonderful example of what help people can find on the site and perhaps decrease the procrastination a bit.

  11. Making it shorter: “In recent years I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I am a perfectionist. Not perfect, but a perfectionist. Otherwise known as obsessive-compulsive neurotic, or genealogist.” (I removed the period between compulsive and neurotic.) Now take the shorter version and create samplers, frameable letterpress-sheets, quilts, &c. They’ll sell like hotcakes at a booth at FGS & NGS conferences along with the vests and bags that Michael’s mom is going to make featuring microfilm rolls with intertwining film strips.

  12. Thanks for “shaking” me! I was stuck in the “too much to do” perfectionist mode. I’m moving again. Super post!

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