Many wear perfectionism as a badge of honor. They equate it to caring about quality. While quality is a great thing, you can’t get to quality without first going through quantity.
Two study groups were told to make clay pots. Group 1 was told they’d be judged on the quality of their pots. They were instructed to come up with the best pot during the time allotted. The closer their clay pot was to perfection, the better their score. Group 2 was told they’d be judged on the quantity of their pots. This group was instructed to come up with as many pots as possible during the time allotted. The more clay pots they created, the better their score.
The interesting part wasn’t who won but who ultimately created the best pots: Group 2. The group who focused on quantity incidentally produced the work of greatest quality. Those being judged on quality did not actually produce pots of the greatest quality. Group 1 was slowed by their obsession with perfection while Group 2 improved faster because they focused on creating and shipping. The more pots they made without regard for perfection, the closer to perfection they came. Doing more resulted in producing greater-quality work.
Quality and quantity are often presented as a dichotomy, but the two are not mutually exclusive. As a perfectionist, you may have high standards and care about doing things well, so it can seem like people who are producing a lot of imperfect work don’t care about quality like you do. This perspective can encourage the belief that your standards are better than others’. However, this attitude holds no one back but yourself. If you want to be the best, you have to commit to creating and shipping something every day.
Ship or Ship Off
In this context, to ship is to put something out into the world. Shipping means launching something and making it available to the customer or end user. Shipping in this sense does not literally mean putting something in a box and mailing it, but rather launching your project to the public and making something available for them to consume.
A positive byproduct of perfectionism is high standards, but value is derived from these standards only if they’re applied to work that is shared with the world. Without shipping, your high standards aren’t applied to anything—all you have are paralysis and inaction.
Rethink Good Enough
While high standards make your work great, perfectionism prevents your work from ever seeing the light of day. It’s hard to call a project done when there’s always something that can be improved. Good is never good enough, and because we never define good enough, it’s always one more improvement away. If you allow it, this cycle of improvement will go on indefinitely because you can always improve something.
Resisting perfectionism is not about putting out shoddy work. If your standards are so high they’re causing paralysis and preventing you from shipping, then they’re not good standards.
Have you ever thought about what good enough looks like? The phrase good enough sounds horrendous to a perfectionist, but good enough is, by definition, good enough! You can and should be shipping work that is good enough. It doesn’t mean you’re distributing poor-quality work; it means you’re progressing.
You need to recalibrate your mind and assign a numerical value to good enough. Draw the line at 90 percent perfect. You have high standards and that’s often why you feel frustrated: you have this image of perfection in your mind and what you’ve made doesn’t align with it. Set a new goal of 90 percent perfect—that’s 90 percent of what your perfectionist mindset would call perfect.
The reason 90 percent works is that you’re so obsessed with such an incredible level of detail that your 90 percent perfect is actually better than what most other people would consider perfect. However, you need to understand that your standards are unrealistic for where you are right now. One hundred percent perfect is too much, and striving for it is why you’re paralyzed. By setting a limit of 90 percent, you’ll be able to ship. You’ll be able to say “I made it to ninety percent and now I’m done. It may not be perfect, but I’m done.”
Tell yourself: “My job is ninety percent. That’s it.” No more, no less. The only way you can close the gap between what you’ve made and what’s in your mind is by putting out imperfect work. It’s going to drive you crazy because all you’re going to see are the flaws, but you have to put it out there. Accept that what you’ve made is not up to your standards. Now ship it, and let it drive you to make the next thing better.
Ninety percent perfect works as a concept for people who are chronic perfectionists. If you’re not a perfectionist, 90 percent does not apply to you because it’s not meant to be a goal to reach for from a place of low standards. The concept of 90 percent perfect is for those with a perfectionism level so high that it’s causing paralysis and keeping them from shipping projects. By lowering the mental bar of what’s acceptable to 90 percent perfect, you make what was impossible possible. You have lowered your unreasonable standards to a place where you can get started and accomplish something.
This is going to be difficult to do at first. No one said it would be easy. But you need to stop patting yourself on the back for your perfectionism and high standards. Without discipline, you’re just a glorified procrastinator.
Perfectionists allow their obsession with perfection to keep them from putting out work. They insist it isn’t good enough and that it doesn’t deserve to see the light of day, but the only way to approach perfection is by putting out a sea of imperfect work. A sea is vast and deep, and creating a sea of imperfect work is no small task, but you must embrace this concept if you’re ever going to reach the level of quality you seek.
If you focus on perfection, it will be the very thing that keeps you from attaining it. Creating a volume of work is how you’ll improve. Massive action and daily effort will build up your skill. This is how you close the gap between the work you produce and the image of perfection in your mind.
- If you want to be a great writer, write a million words.
- If you want to be a better artist, draw every day for 730 days.
- If you want to be a better speaker, record two hundred presentations.
- If you want to appear more natural on camera, shoot a hundred videos.
The process is messy. There’s nothing glamorous about cranking out imperfect work over the course of days, weeks, months, and years, but that is what it takes to achieve greatness.
Make Only New Mistakes
Mistakes will happen—expect them. Don’t try to avoid making mistakes or you’ll avoid making anything, ever. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and acknowledge that it’s part of the process. Everyone makes mistakes, and you will make a lot of them when starting out. What you make in the beginning will not look like what you want it to, and you will have to go through a great amount of imperfect work and many more mistakes before you can produce the work you want.
Failure is a part of the road to success. You don’t get to success without experiencing the bumps and hurdles of failure. There’s no perfectly smooth, paved road to success—it’s potholes all the way. Many people stop when they encounter a bump. They think the bump is a roadblock and say, “I guess this is where the road ends.” You have to keep going until you see results. Failure is an end to your story only if you quit.
Make a point to make only new mistakes. You’ll make mistakes no matter what, but as much as possible, make new mistakes. There’s no shame in making a new mistake—it’s how we grow. Learn to see new mistakes as progress. They’re a good thing. Whenever you make a mistake, establish a process to prevent that mistake from happening again and follow the process in the future. Learn to be excited when you make new mistakes because it means you found a hole to patch in your process! Be excited that you didn’t repeat an old mistake.
Creators are their own worst critics, and when we look at what we’ve made we tend to see nothing but its flaws. Maybe you did something great in the past and you fear nothing you do in the future will ever be as good. Sometimes you go weeks or months without sharing your work because you’re afraid it won’t live up to the last thing you did. We forget that people can still enjoy the imperfections and that they’re not looking for the flaws like we are. This ghost of an idea that something can be perfect is a lie that robs us of creating things that could be really great or that could move people or help them. Whenever you feel the paralysis of perfectionism, just do something. For goodness’ sake, do anything! Take action.
If you’re scared of criticism, you should be scared of regret. The regret you feel won’t be from a lack of perfection; it will be from never sharing anything at all. You’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than what you did.
There is a great temptation to delete or dispose of the old work you’ve done—the work that’s riddled with flaws and imperfections. When you look back on what you’ve made, you may see only things that could be improved. Keeping your old work seems painful, but beauty exists in the story of progression, and your old work will remind you of where you came from. It’s a documentation of your journey—one you can’t honestly recreate in hindsight. The only way to preserve the truth of the past is to document things as they happen.
Your old work demonstrates to others that improvement isn’t magic; it’s the result of a sea of imperfect work created over time. Perfection is the shadow of excellence. Chase it and you will never reach it. Pursue excellence instead, for excellence can be obtained.
- Your job is to get something to 90 percent perfect and ship it.
- The only way to close the gap between what you’ve made and what’s in your mind is by putting out imperfect work.
- Focus on getting to good enough instead of perfect.
- Let imperfections drive you to make the next thing better.
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes and acknowledge that it’s part of the process.
- Make a point to make only new mistakes. There is no shame in making a new mistake—it’s how we grow.
- When you make a mistake, establish a process to prevent the mistake from happening again, and follow the process in the future.
- Don’t delete or hide your old work. Beauty exists in the story of progression.