The late 1960′s and early 70′s was an era of contrasts: free love and government hatred; sexual revolution and the threat of nuclear annihilation; the birth of an age of technology and exploration and the threat of social and environmental disaster. The year of 1968 was no different. The same year Apollo 7 launched, which brought us the first live television broadcast from space, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which warned that the 1970′s would bring mass starvation, widespread disease, social unrest, and a variety of other problems. The original book opened with this totally level-headed prediction: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”
If you’re a painter, or a photographer, or a writer, or any sort of creative type who actually creates things, how do you know when you’re done? This seems like a simple question, but the answer usually isn’t obvious. ”You’re done when … you’re done?” The problem with producing art is that it can always be better. My photos could always have some element that could be improved. Maybe one area could be sharper, or one area could be darker, or lighter, or some stick could be cloned out. I could rewrite and polish this post literally forever. I could probably read about perfectionism forever, incorporating new ideas, case studies, examples, stories from masters, etc., until my fingers turned into bloody stumps.
This is the problem with being a perfectionist. Where many people view perfectionism as something of a virtue, especially when compared to sloppiness or incompetence, I’ve grown to see it as detrimental to producing good work. Your art is never going to be perfect. Never. Never ever. It’s important to get that.
For the last few years, I’ve chased perfection in a lot of areas. Shockingly, I never reached it. There are two big problems here. (1) The marginal return on the extra hours poured into making something a bit better are very low. While something can always be more perfect, at what point does anyone but you notice? More importantly, at what point does it matter? If you spend the last 50% of your time making something 2% better, does that 2% separate you from the competition? If your 50% is already better than everyone elses’ 100%, you’re wasting your time. (2) All that time spent making marginal improvements on Art #1 is time you’re not spending on Art # 2, 3, 4 and 5. Not only does shipping more give you more product to sell, it makes your product better. You get feedback from real customers. You learn what people like, what people want, and what actually works and what doesn’t. So, instead of eeking out those last few drops, ship when you think you’re 90% done.
On Being Wrong
Sometimes we use perfectionism as an excuse. If I polish this turd forever, I never have to show anyone. I can always say “I’m close, I just need to tweak a few more things and then it will be perfect.” This means I never have to worry about feedback and my feelings don’t get hurt by the people that won’t like it. [There are always people who won't like it.] Even better, I don’t have to get stressed out about coming up with my next idea.
This thinking crops up in anyone who expresses opinions, in any format. When there’s a risk of being wrong, there’s always some amount of anxiety about hitting that ‘Send’ button. But, I have good news: You can be wrong 100% of the time and still have a career.
Let’s return to Paul Ehrlich. Obviously, his predictions in The Population Bomb didn’t exactly come to bear. Did that deter him? Fuck no. He’s made a career out of being wrong. Perhaps most famously, Ehrlich, who publicly predicted that resources were rapidly being depleted and that the world would face major shortages of necessary materials, took Julian L. Simon up on a bet about resource scarcity. Simon let Ehrlich pick any five metal commodities he wanted, and bet $1000 that they would be cheaper in ten years than they were at the date of the wager, adjusted for inflation. The bet finished in October of 1990. Even if the prices hadn’t been adjusted for inflation, Simon still would have won. Ehrlich paid Simon the difference between the 1980 price and the 1990 price, which was $576.07.
These aren’t isolated incidents. This guy has literally been wrong about everything, his entire career. And it’s been an illustrious career: the Crafoord Prize, a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, the Ramon Margalef Prize, a shitload of other awards and recognitions, and he’s currently a chaired professor at Stanford. All for fear mongering claims that have been proven wrong time and again.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Now, I’m not advocating that you go the Paul Ehrlich route. Have some fucking dignity. But I am suggesting you consider this very powerful phrase: “What’s the worst that could happen?” Usually, the worst that could happen is trivial. So you’re wrong. Big deal. Just about everybody forgets when you’re wrong. Nobody remembers the 60% of the at bats Ted Williams struck out during that wondrous season. Hell, most people don’t even remember the hits. They remember that he was better than everyone else. They remember the home runs. You can be wrong a lot of the time, or as Ehrlich demonstrates, even all the time, and people will still listen if you have something truly thought provoking to say. So quit being afraid of being wrong. Nobody cares.