You're reading Sentences, etc., a design and development blog by Justin Michael.

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.