Perfectionism & Shipping
One of the most common things I encounter when I talk to creative people is that they’re so close to their work most of what they see are flaws, even if the work is great overall. There are a few things that you, as a creator, need to realize when it comes to flaws and your work, or your work will be doomed to languish and decay without ever seeing the light of day.
First, all work has flaws. There is no perfect painting, no flawless piece of music, no design without issue. Flaws are something that will always exist no matter how much time, effort, and resources are applied. It’s critical that you become comfortable with this fact both in the abstract and as it applies to your own work. Specifically, you need to realize that your work will always be flawed. Accept that, and make peace with it.
Second, the majority of your audience is not actively trying to seek out flaws in your work, even though it might feel that way. There will always be negative people, trolls, and haters, but they are not worth an ounce of thought. They are also not the majority of your audience, so it’s both safe and recommended that you completely ignore them. Instead, realize that most of the people who value your work do so because they love it holistically. They don’t even see the flaws you’re fretting over.
When you look at your work you see a collection of individual pieces, and the pieces with flaws stand out to you. Your attention is drawn to the flawed pieces because, as the creator, you want to make your work better. It’s natural that your focus is drawn to areas where things can most obviously improve.
When someone else looks at your work they the whole, not the individual pieces, which means they do not see the flaws like you do. They’re not focused on how to make things better, they’re focused on the total package. They see a single, cohesive entity, the good parts of which outshine the flaws.
You have to realize that no one is going to scrutinize or spend as much time with your work as you do, so small (or even large!) imperfections will likely never be discovered by your audience. Even if your work is incredibly popular and put under a microscope by millions of people there are flaws that will go completely undiscovered. Want proof? There’s a visual effects mistake in Star Wars that went undiscovered for 38 years. Yes, Star Wars, an incredibly popular piece of work that’s been viewed countless times my countless people who obsess over it. Once you see the mistake you’ll realize it’s not a small mistake, and yet no one noticed until recently. The mistake didn’t even get fixed in any of the remastered special editions when professionals were being paid to find and fix mistakes in this incredible piece of work.
How can this be? It’s because Star Wars, as a whole, is fantastic. It has all kinds of flaws, but they don’t matter, because people see the whole. The glare from the awesomeness that is Star Wars literally blinds people to the flaws. And when flaws are found they rarely diminish the whole. Is Star Wars less great because Obi-Wan’s lightsaber has a visual glitch, or a TIE Fighter is missing for two frames? No, of course not. It’s still Star Wars, and it’s still incredible.
Third, keep in mind that other people only see what you share with them. Most importantly, no one else can see the ideal version of your work that you have in your head. You can see your ideal vision, so that’s what you compare your work to. This is why your perception of your work is out of whack. The vision you have, the ideal, is often not a practical thing to realize given the limits of time, resources, and energy. But comparing your ideal vision to what you’ve created is something no one else will ever be able to do. What seems like work that’s flawed and falls short of your ideal is work that, to someone else, is stupendous, because that work is a reflection of the vision you have. A flawed reflection of a perfect ideal is still something awesome, especially to people who can’t compare it with the better version you have in your head that isn’t practical to create.
Fourth, and this is key, your audience would rather have an imperfect version of what you create than nothing at all. Read that last sentence again, because it’s vital that you not only understand it, but believe it. Remember, flaws will often be rendered invisible by the overall awesomeness of your work as a whole. By holding your work back you’re depriving your audience, and the world, of experiencing that awesomeness because of flaws that no one else will see or care about.
Now, even if you realize all of that, take it to heart, and truly believe it, your own internal scale is probably still going to be out of whack. You’re still going to look at your own work and consider it sub-par and not ready to ship, when it is in fact past the point when you should have released it.
In order to get your internal scale properly calibrated you need to find some people you trust to be 100% honest with you and show them your work at various stages of completion. Then you need to take what they say to heart. If the people you trust say it’s ready to ship, it’s ready to ship.
Now keep this in mind: What they say is almost always going to differ from what you feel. They might look at a piece of work that you consider 80%, or even 70% complete and tell you it’s ready to go as-is. Remember that they’re seeing your work as other people will see it. They don’t have the mental baggage of an ideal version to compare it to, and the flaws don’t stand out for them the way they do for you. You have to trust these people and recalibrate based on what they say so you know when to release your work. If you don’t do this your internal quality scale is going to remain out of whack, and the work you do that could be bringing joy to people will be held back for no good reason.
Even after all of that shipping is still going to be difficult. When you try and release your work you’re going to feel trepidation, anxiety, and fear. These are normal feelings that all creators feel. Shipping is hard because shipping is a skill, and it’s one you probably haven’t practiced enough. Make shipping a natural part of your process. Normalize it. Ship early, and ship often.. The world will be a better place with your work than without it.
So, please, release your work. Ship it before you think it’s ready, because it’s probably ready sooner than you think.
You can do this.
A lot of people have the wrong idea about failure. Failing is how everyone learns. Failure is part of the process, yet failure has a ton of stigma surrounding it because we live in societies and cultures that celebrate success. The more outlandish and exceptional the success the more attention it gets. You don’t usually see hard-working people who slowly built their business over the course of a decade on TV, for example. We live in a hit-driven culture, surrounded by hit-driven media, so the mundane mechanics of how life actually works are hidden from view.
I used to fear failure, but over time I’ve come to fear something else entirely: stagnation. I realized that if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. And if you’re not trying, you’re stagnating. No one gets things right the first time unless they have a ton of luck on their side. A ton.
Sometimes I’ll write some code, run it, and it’ll appear to work flawlessly. That scares the crap out of me. It freaks me right out that I didn’t fail the first time. I would rather see an error, or have it spit out something wrong, or get some other failure condition that I could diagnose rather than see a piece of freshly-authored code seemingly run correctly the first time.
Why? Because writing code is difficult. Most things worth doing are difficult (which does not mean they can’t be enjoyable). If I write some code and it appears correct right out of the gate that makes me think there’s something really, horribly wrong with it in the most insidious way. Like pretty much anything else, code needs more than a single pass to get it right.
Writers don’t write a paragraph and call it done. They write something, they read it, they refine it, they tweak. Sentences get thrown out, parts get rewritten, and sometimes the entire paragraph is trashed and they start again.
So was the original paragraph a failure? You can certainly look at it that way, but it’s a required failure. You can’t skip ahead to the good paragraph, you have to go through the process to get there. You have to iterate. You have to start with failure.
This concept is hard for many to grasp, because people want shortcuts to exist. They think there are ways to skip all the failures and jump right to the success. There isn’t. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how much experience you have, or what you’re doing; failure is a part of your process. Some fail more than others, but failure and iteration are integral to making things, period.
I understand fearing failure. No one likes to fail, at least at first. Failure feels bad. You want to do better. You want to be better. Failure is frustrating, embarrassing, and eats up time and resources.
But here’s the thing: Failure is incredibly valuable. Each failure teaches us something new. Each mistake is a lesson. Each error is one step closer to greater understanding. Proficiency is the product of repeated failure. It’s dangerous to look at each failure in isolation, you have to look at them as part of a whole, as part of your process.
Failure is not a dirty word. As I said, everyone fails, but we live in a culture that tucks all those failures under the rug and keeps them out of sight. We, as a society, have shunned a critical, non-negotiable part of the creative process. We only talk about and celebrate wild, outlandish success, giving us all a view of both the world and ourselves that is ridiculously out of balance.
Some people don’t expect failure. That’s a dangerous, arrogant, and toxic viewpoint. Failure is as important to the process as success. Hell, it’s more important. Everyone, every single person, has failed a lot more than they’ve succeeded. Everyone. Yes, that famous singer. Yes, that painter. Yes, that author. Yes, that podcaster. Yes, that movie star.
Successes are beautiful, bright flags atop mountains of failure. You have to climb the mountain before you can plant that flag.
So if you fear failure, don’t. Disliking failure is natural, but remind yourself that failing itself is natural. You’re not going to find some magic shortcut to success, you’re not going to make some incredible breakthrough that somehow elevates you to some magic plane that’s above failing. No one has ever done that, and no one ever will. What you are going to do is fail, a lot, before you succeed.
Making things is messy. Failing is part of the mess. The ones who create, the ones you succeed, are the ones who have figured out how to handle the mess that is their process. The mess is annoying, the mess is troublesome, the mess is uncomfortable, the mess is an eyesore, and the mess is a hundred other negative things, but it’s also the biggest positive there is. If there’s a mess, you’re making progress. If there’s a mess, things are happening. If there’s a mess, you’re building something to plant a flag on.
The goal is to always improve.
Today you should do better than yesterday. The project you’re working on now should be better than all your previous projects. The work you’re doing now should be better than the work you did last week.
This post should be better than the last one I wrote.
Improvement is expected. It’s assumed. The idea that we’re all going to constantly do better every time seems to be an inherent expectation of everyone, everywhere.
But what if you do something that’s not better?
That sounds horrible, I know. I’m living it. I am my own worst critic, but even I admit that my last post was really good.
And that’s a problem, because I don’t think this post is going to be better.
But you know what? That’s okay.
That’s okay?! What? How could that possibly be okay? What about constant improvement?
Woah, stay calm. Let me explain.
So this post might not be as good as the last one. Okay, what if it isn’t? What will happen? Will the last post be diminished in some way because this one is not quite as good? Does this post’s quality being a bit lower mean I didn’t learn and improve through practice by writing it? Does the drop in quality mean that I’ve lowered my standards and have decided to stop trying to be a better writer?
No, of course not.
Constant improvement as a goal is great. It drives us to challenge ourselves, to strive for what might be, to stretch ourselves as we reach a little further each time.
Constant improvement as a rule is damaging. The constant, relentless pressure to do better every single time is unrealistic and detrimental. That pressure, that fear of “what if I can’t do better this time?” is poison to productivity.
That fear almost paralyzed me into not writing anything today.
But I recognized that fear, that pressure, that big tangle of negativity masquerading as a useful goal. I confronted it, which was hard. I reasoned it away, which took time and effort. Then I wrote this post about it.
This post, which almost didn’t exist.
This post, which I’m glad to have written.
This post, which isn’t as good as the last one.
What We Can See
We compare what we can see.
We see a tall building with wonderful architectural detail, so we compare it to our own sketches.
We see a great website that’s fast and usable and well written with great visuals, so we compare it to the two dozen mock ups we made last night that are obviously not the solution.
We see an app with a silky-smooth sorting animation for hundreds of items, so we compare it to the code we wrote last week that isn’t doing nearly as good a job.
We see a breathtaking photo with perfect lighting and composition, so we compare it to the hundreds of photos we took last month with subpar lighting and composition that just feels off.
We see the finished work of others.
We see our own creative process.
We compare what we can see, even if it’s not fair.
We don’t see the months-long slog the architect of the building suffered through, or the constant pressure of their looming deadline.
We don’t see the dozen people on the design and development teams behind the great website. We do not see the countless number of rejected ideas they had, nor do we see their shouting matches.
We don’t see the app developer with decades of experience sorting and animating on a myriad of platforms starting with the Apple II. We do not see the innumerable sacrifices she made to focus on her work and hone her skills.
We don’t see the thousands of rejected photos taken by the photographer, nor do we see the hours they poured into editing and tweaking the one shot you did see.
So often the only process we can see is our own.
So often the only thing we have to compare our process to is the end result of others.
So, we compare what we can see. We compare, despite the fact that it isn’t fair.
We compare what we can see because it’s easy, because it’s a tendency, because we aspire to greater things.
It’s important to have a destination, but you can’t compare your journey with another’s destination.
We compare what we can see, so look deeper.
Stop looking only at finished work. Look behind the scenes. Find out what was invested. Discover what was sacrificed. Uncover the truth behind the work.
Be fair to yourself. See more than just your own process.
Because we compare what we can see.
From Here to There
If you’re struggling to make progress toward your goals, take a step back and make sure you know the following three things:
- Where you are now.
- Where you want to be.
- What’s between those two points.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who are trying to move forward without knowing some or all of those things. You can’t plot a course without them, and you need specifics.
Where you are now.
In order to know where you are, you need to have answers to these questions:
- What do you enjoy about where you are now?
- What do you dislike about where you are now?
- What’s keeping you where you are? (In other words: Why aren’t you somewhere else right now?)
- What are the various paths leading away from where you are now?
So many people think they know where they are, but they really have no idea. People tend to look toward the horizon, they tend to dream about what isn’t instead of examining what is.
Reflect on your situation and figure out exactly where you are right now.
Where you want to be.
Asking someone to drive to “the west coast” or plot a course to “somewhere in the pacific ocean” is not useful. Where on the west coast? Where in the pacific ocean? When do you depart? When do you want to arrive?
And yet, people say, all the time, they want to “be rich” or “be famous” or “have more followers” or “be more successful.” Those aren’t destinations. If those are your goals, then you’re directionless, and you won’t get very far.
Answer the following about where you want to be, and then you’ll know which direction to travel:
- What does it look like?
- What does it feel like?
- What makes it better than where you are now?
- When you get there, what will you do each day?
- How much time are you willing to invest in getting there?
- How many resources are you willing to invest?
- What are you willing to sacrifice in order to arrive?
- What’s keeping you out?
Once you know, specifically, where you are and where you want to be, a direction will present itself.
There’s distance between the two points. If there wasn’t it would just take a step, it wouldn’t be a journey.
Imagine the distance. Imagine the path. Answer the following:
- How’s the terrain?
- How’s the climate?
- What are the obstacles? Huge mountains, giant canyons?
- Where can you get support while traveling?
- How great is the distance?
- What will fuel you over that distance?
- Will there be enough fuel?
Figuring all this out might challenge your expectations. That’s good. You may end up heading in a direction you didn’t think you would. That’s both exciting and much better than not moving at all.
When you know where you are, where you’re going, and what the path between looks like your next steps will present themselves. Take those steps. Make progress. Have an adventure.