Personal note: this is something I’ve been massively struggling with the last few days and I needed to write a post as a kind of therapy. Hang in there with me.
Perfectionism is a funny thing. It’s supposed to be regaled and with words like “craft”, “art” and “perfection.” It also causes more people to not do s**t than any other thing I can think of.
Refining and editing your work has value, but perfectionism is a cancer and it will kill your work if you let it. It lets more people patter on in “Imagination Land” than any other drug. It stops people taking advantage of the here and now and enables them to carry on imagining what “might be” in a perfect world, instead of realizing “what is.”
The perfectionist’s dilemma is that is the perfectionist wants to wait to release something perfect, but in doing so, never actually releases anything at all.
Here’s why perfectionism sucks (and how to get over it).
Perfection Is A Myth
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No matter how much quality assurance you build into a project, utter perfection is almost impossible to achieve (and, yes, I see the irony in saying that on this site). Even if the stars align, your psychic was right, and everything starts to work out, something is still bound to go wrong. Some cookie won’t crumble the right way.
That’s not a problem; that’s life. Stop trying to avoid it. It’s going to happen.
A “perfect game” in baseball is one in which a pitcher pitches a victory of at least nine innings where no opposing player reaches base. There have been over 300,000+ games played in MLB history. There have been 23 perfect games .
That’s how rare perfection is. Stop trying to chase it.
It’s a great accomplishment when it happens but if you judged a pitcher according to how many perfect games he’s thrown, it’d seem like there were a lot of terrible pitchers in the major leagues – pitchers who have won division titles, championships, and Cy Young awards. Perfectionism doesn’t determine greatness; getting things done does.
Perfection Is Too Hard
It just is.
The 80/20 rule will tell you that 80% of the results come from 20% of the inputs. This niches down even farther than that though. Within that 20% of results, you’ll find yet another disproportionate result. You’ll find that within that 20%, there’s another 20% that makes up the majority of the results.
Unfortunately, this works the other way around as well – about 20% of the inputs will create 80% of the problems.
If you run an agency, you’ll find that one or two clients provide the majority of your revenue. You’ll also find that one or two clients provide the majority of complaints, headaches, and problems.
If you sell a variety of products online, you’ll find that one or two items cause the majority of your issues.
It’s just how things work.
This works on an almost infinite scale. You’ll find that the final 1% is as tough as as the previous 99% put together. Instead of pulling your hair out by trying to force things to be perfect, relax, and let go of that last little bit. Realize that 80% is often “good enough” to get something out the door (for you to come back and fix it later).
Perfection Is Overrated
When’s the last time something absolutely had to be perfect? Not a case of “it would be really nice if this was perfect” but a time when something absolutely had to be perfect or someone would die? Like shot-in-the-head die?
Perfection is overrated. Unless you’re building a rocket to Mars (a la Elon Musk), you really don’t need to be perfect. If you still think you need perfection, you’re gonna have a bad time.
Why 80/20 Beats Perfectionism Every Time**
If you want to do something effectively and get it done, just 80/20 it. It works every single time (or at least 80% of the time 🙂 ).
If you need more reasons why, I got more reasons:
80% is Good Enough
Like I mentioned before, if you’re building a rocket to Mars, 80% probably won’t cut it. Otherwise, typically, if you get to 80%, you’ll be fine for a test launch.
80% Is Fast
100% is intimidating. And it can take forever.
You don’t have to do it all. You only have to do the 20% that actually matters. It might not be perfect but it’ll be fast. Really fast.
Being fast has advantages. A lot of business success simply comes down to the fact that one company moves faster than its competitors. Being fast allows you to get more data points faster and to iterate quicker. Over time you’re able to systematically make things less imperfect. Give yourself a time limit and work within it.
How’s that for counter-intuitive? Intentionally making things imperfect can actually help you to make them more perfect in the long run.
80% is Useful
Even if 100% perfection is the end goal, aiming for the 20% that moves the needle will get you results faster. This is useful because, instead of procrastinating and waiting for perfection, you actually take action and start getting stuff done.
This gives you solid data to work from and allows you to do rapid prototyping to discover the next 20% idea that will have 80% of the results.
By 80/20-ing everything, you’ll find you’ll spend less time screwing around with things that seem important but which really do nothing to move things forward.
How To Get Over The Perfectionist’s Dilemma
So you want to kill your inner perfectionist? Here are some practical ways to make him disappear without a trace.
Ship Something Imperfect
Ship something imperfect. Then systematically add features and updates on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis.
Clay does this with LeadPages. Every time the LeadPages team ship something, they release a new update every week. Instead of looking at projects as broken, they flip them on their heads, and bill them as tools that are constantly being updated and that are constantly gaining new features.
The genius of this is that by getting a basic product out the door, they get user feedback from the get-go, which means they can add only the most requested features rather than features the dev team thought would be “neat”.
By shipping something imperfect, they can move faster. So can you.
Get Over Yourself
“Joel, I’m an artist. I have to be perfect.”
Bull. Bull. Bull. Bull. Bull.
“But you don’t understand.”
I understand all too well. The problem is you.
Get over yourself. You’re not that special. Everyone feels like that.
You’re not holding back because you’re waiting for perfection. You’re holding back because you’re afraid of being judged.
Guess what: No matter how hard you try, you ain’t gonna be perfect. Better to get it out there and to get results than to have it linger in your head forever and wonder what could have happened. Get over yourself and make something.
Do The Thing That Scares You Most
Does the idea of putting something out there that’s not perfect scare you? Fix that by doing something you’re even more scared of. In fact, do the thing you’re most scared of.
- If you’re scared of speaking in public, speak in public.
- If you’re scared of jumping off a bridge, jump off a bridge.
- If you’re scared of looking like an idiot, look like an idiot, record yourself looking like an idiot, and post the clip on YouTube.
Do what you’re most scared of and realize something extraordinary:
It’s not as bad as you’re pretending it will be. Suck it up.
Guess what: If that wasn’t as bad as you thought it’d be, “not being perfect” won’t be as bad as you think it will be either.
Realize No One Is Paying Too Much Attention
If you watch a video of yourself speaking, you see every little tick and micro-screw up you make. You might even remember what you were thinking about when you said each sentence, and cringe while watching it.
When you’re done cringing, give it to someone else, and watch them watch the video. They’ll probably pay attention but they’re probably not going to go through with a fine tooth comb and analyze every single noun you use.
No one is paying too much attention to you. No one cares as much as you do and no one will notice the imperfections in your project or performance as much as you will, so stop worrying about it so much.
Important caveat and exception to the rule: If you ever publish something on YouTube, do not read the comments. Just don’t. You’re welcome in advance.
Outsource The Last 15%
This doesn’t mean you abdicate your responsibility when it comes to putting out a quality product, but it does means you identify the choke point in the funnel and remove it. For me, I get a blog post to 80% done and then send it to Joanna to edit. It’d take me days to go from 80-95% on my own, but Joanna can hop in, edit ruthlessly, and then send my posts back to me, so I can try to polish the last 5%, and get them up. With some posts, I just tell Joanna to edit and post them because I know if she doesn’t, I’ll never put them up. Four years writing and I still have trouble doing this. Really?
The biggest thing you’re doing by waiting for perfection is procrastinating. If you deny it, you’re lying to yourself.
Set a timer. Commit. If you have to, blackmail yourself or take cold showers, and just make it happen.
Your brain hates you. It’s only interested in self-preservation, not improvement or advancement. It comes up with all these horror stories of what will happen if things aren’t perfect.
All of them are lies. Turn off your brain and go military. Just get after it. Your brain is wrong.
If you’re sitting on something that’s ready to be launched but are waiting for things to be perfect, close your eyes, pull the trigger, and launch it. Do it live.
It’s not as bad as you imagine. I promise.
Photo credit: Bryce Edwards and Steve Gibson
Adam Hagerman says
Very timely and well said Joel.
For me, the perfectionist dilemma also stemmed from my fear of the entire project failing. I thought that if I could put out a perfect piece of work, then the possibility of failure would be 0%.
That’s not the case at all and finally realizing that has allowed me to start jumping into well-deserved projects.
For example, I just sent an email out to my subscribers stating that I am starting a “short-and sweet” podcast where they can ask questions and I’ll answer them on the air. I have no podcast art, I have no idea how to edit the sound and I know little to nothing about getting the podcast on iTunes. But it feels great that I actually put it out there. I want them to be the first ones to ask questions. Will there be bumps along the way? I guaranteed myself that there would be. However, I know it’s moving forward now vs. sitting in my head.
Good luck to everyone else on starting their projects now and not later!
Thomas Yates says
This is the mostly timely blog ever, sheer coincidence I know, but thank you for getting your thoughts down! How did it work as a bit of self therapy?
Your therapy was just the message I needed to hear as well. Perfectionism is so addictive, I like the way you’re talking, its actually more adventurous and baller to create, create, create and pivot when needed, verse keepin it all in until its the never reachable perfect specimen. Thanks Joel.
This is the ultimate guide to overcome perfectionism.
This is a great post!
I started writing about the perfectionist’s dilemma myself this week. My desire to make things, well, perfect drives me insane.
Thank you for sharing this!