I’ve never truly considered myself a perfectionist. But I do have the nagging feeling after just about everything I do that I didn’t do enough. I wonder if I wrote the right combination of words, if I approached the conversation the right way, if I ran enough miles for the day, or if I drank enough coffee.
Even when work I’ve submitted is said to be of quality, I can’t help but think it could have been better. Once I read things I’ve written a few month later — or maybe even a few days later — I always see places where I could have improved my language, or I wonder why I included certain words at all.
A psychoanalyst might consider these sorts of emotions less an issue of perfectionism and more an issue of “enough-ism,” but for now, I’m including the feelings in the ballpark of perfectionism.
Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that I turn in work that isn’t finished. My feelings are similar to one you might feel after you played pick-up basketball. Maybe I shot well that day and didn’t have many turnovers. Maybe this was the best I’ve shot in months. At the end of it all — at least for me — I can’t help but walk away and think about all of the shots that I should have made, and the dumb mistakes I did make.
When it comes to writing or work that doesn’t have a defined structure, it’s common to revisit it and realize places where you wish you could have done things differently. You can write a sentence in an infinite number of ways. You can’t put gas in your car in an infinite number of ways. (Unless you’re including other variables, like the way you’re standing, the clothes you’re wearing, or the possible combinations of food you’ve eaten that day.)
This feeling used to keep me from writing and from starting projects, or I’d sit on a completed project long after I finished it. I’d think, “maybe if I wait longer, something better will come to mind.”
In Objective Communication, a book based on the lectures of Professor Leonard Peikoff, it’s learned early in the reading that there is no ‘perfect.’ When speaking about organizing presentations, which we can apply to all work, Peikoff says, “On this, as on all other points, there are many options. There is no such thing as one mandatory order. But there must be a reason for your order.” Later in the book he continues, “There is no such thing as one perfect, Platonic structure for any given topic.”
If you’re approaching perfectionism from an objective and rational viewpoint, Peikoff is right on the money. There really is no objective standard that defines ‘perfect.’ A number of possibilities could elicit the same result. And each possibility is subjective to whoever is engaging with it.
My version of an article ready for submission will greatly differ from that of an editor, as it will from that of the audience, and as it will for a person from Norway who doesn’t speak English. Clearly the editor has a better defined idea of what an article should look like before it’s published, but even she is basing her interpretation on how articles are or aren’t supposed to look. Her ideas could greatly differ from an editor in Europe who is more experimental or willing to take risks.
None of this is said, of course, to encourage myself or you to take unnecessary risks with our work, or to submit projects before they’re completed. I say this to ease some of the tension of any nagging perfectionism. After all, couldn’t a Pulitzer Prize winning author have written a different version of her award winning book and still have won the Pulitzer Prize? Would we ever assume that the book could only be structured in one way in order for it to win the award? Isn’t the award itself a collection of subjective judges who are including biases for how they choose Pulitzer Prize winners?
If a football team wins the Super Bowl by a score of 36–3 or 39–23, is one of those results less satisfactory because it didn’t meet an arbitrary metric of ‘perfect?’ Would the team have to win 100–0 in order for them to feel as though they are perfect? Would it have to be 101–0?
Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, had a saying that entrepreneurs latched on to for some time. He said, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” This has been coined the “Iterate Fast and Release Often” philosophy of entrepreneurship, and it has been applied to many startups. It’s a drastically different approach toward the creation of a product than people often take. And even more important to note, this approach is used for the creation of companies — whose success or failure has greater implications and potential woes than the smaller scale projects that many of us are completing.
It takes different philosophies and approaches to get things done. There may be times where a perfectionist approach is necessary and valuable, but more often than not, I think the approach is an excuse to procrastinate or it comes from the fear of failure. Since I most closely relate to the writing world, I think of reporters who have only hours or less to submit their work. If a story is breaking, they don’t have the luxury of being a perfectionist. They must ship quickly and accurately. (Well, we hope they’re accurate, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
When it comes to writing, I think of the words of marketer Seth Godin. “No one ever gets talker’s block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right, until all the craziness in his life has died down.” So if we’re never conflicted with talkers block, why are we conflicted with writers block? Or with workers block? Or with doers block? Let’s just get to doing. Just publish instead of being perfect.
Originally published at medium.com