Allan Armitage on Why Being the Best Is Not the Goal

Heuchera Mega Caramel Allan Armitage

Heuchera ‘Caramel’ is a huge improvement from the originals, but it is surely not perfect. Photo: Allan Armitage

As I write this column, I’m also finishing up my latest book. So I thought I would share a teachable moment from the book, and hopefully it will segue into something you can share. The first time I composed a column like this, I wrote, rewrote, edited, reedited — but it was never quite perfect. If there wasn’t a deadline, I probably would still be writing it. One more sentence, one more line, I didn’t even want to send it.

This is my problem with this endless book. I can’t get it perfect, but yet I try. That I continue to try to make it perfect has resulted in the well-known problem of Paralysis by Analysis.

Perfection is impossible, at least it is to everyone other than those who think they are the best. Not only is it impossible, it is unsustainable — someone will always come by who is better. I can’t think of a single person, plant, or place in our industry that is perfect. Striving to be the best is impossible enough, but striving to be perfect is like embracing smoke. The problem with being the best is there is nowhere to go but down.

The opposite of best is accepting the status quo, that is, doing nothing to improve. This is by far the easiest route to take. It happens when you use the same technology, sell the same plants, and don’t make the efforts to attend local shows, or read the latest information; (I am not writing this for these people, seeing as how they will not be reading this magazine). Doing nothing to better yourself is no big deal, it is just a waste of everyone’s time. But let’s not worry about the no-doers, let’s embrace the people who really get things done. They are those who simply strive to be better.

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A few columns back, I wrote about coleus, and the people who had taken that little old shade plant and kept improving it. George Griffith, Ralph Repp, and many others were not satisfied with what it was and improved it. They knew their introductions were not the best, but did not rest until they had something better. And how about that little-known alum root? It was a pretty enough red-flowered shade plant for landscapers, but Brian Halliwell wanted something better, and we were introduced to Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’. It was awarded the Perennial Plant of the Year and was the winner of the Award of Merit in Europe. In fact, it was the best — until Nancy Goodwin, Dan Heims, Thierry Delabroye, and others thought it should be better.

I am not here to write a horticultural history of plant breeding, but to share the most important aspect of what we do and who we are. That is, simply striving to do better. Examples are everywhere; heck, I am applauded when I run around the tennis court. People ask this old fellow why he works so hard, duh — to get better.

I only need to visit a good garden center, a great nursery, or a vibrant class to know that the employees, the staff, and the leaders don’t have to get better, they want to get better. Pretty simple stuff, really.

Said to be the greatest dancer of all time, Mikhail Baryshnikov stated, “I don’t try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” In our jobs, trying to do better should not be difficult, but in our personal lives, things can get a little complicated.

But not really. Not if you live by the maxim, “Be the kind of person your dog thinks you are.” Can’t go wrong there.

About that book I’m working on — I have analyzed enough, my paralysis is over, and I am sending it in soon.

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