Why was Steve Jobs so good at what he did? Not because he was a perfectionist.
For all the talk of Steve Job’s perfectionism in the weeks and months after his death, most people tended to gloss over the cornucopia of shit products Steve Jobs managed to put out during his life. Even Malcom Gladwell falls into this trap, saying of Jobs, “He needed things to be perfect, and it took time to figure out what perfect was.” Gladwell specifically mentions Job’s obsession over the title bars on the original Macintosh, forcing his developers to go through dozens of iterations. Not only is Gladwell wrong about Job’s perfectionism, he takes away from one of the reasons Jobs was so successful.
Anyone who used various versions of the Macintosh OS prior to OSX and grew accustomed to seeing the beach ball spin endlessly, seemingly for no reason, understands that not everything Jobs touched was magic. Even if we only look at Apple hardware, there are still more than a few bad products. The one-buttoned mouse that Apple held on to for so long was always annoying. The puck mouse was downright homicide-inducing. The iTunes phone was terrible. AppleTV has been less than stellar. And that’s just a few of the bad products. None of Apple’s products are perfect, or even close to it.
But that’s exactly the point. Even Steve Jobs, noted tyrannical perfectionist, not only developed products that weren’t perfect, but actually shipped them.
Because real artists ship.
You could always refine a product. Do more market testing, see if consumers like it. Refine some more. Test again. Keep shaving and buffing and polishing and rounding off and perfecting it. There’s always a bit more to do before something is ‘perfect’, if only because your tastes change between ‘now’ and ‘perfect’. It’s this reason that perfectionism is the ultimate refuge of the scared. If you’re busy making it perfect, you never have to show it to the world. You never have to put yourself, and your ideas, and your work on the line. It’s the height of self-delusion to say you’ll ship when it’s perfect, because deep down, you know it will never be perfect. And that’s the scary part. Perfectionism is the perfect vehicle for self-sabotage.
But, back in the real world, at some point, your work is ‘good enough’. Steve Jobs was really good at identifying when that point came. Even when something was shit, sometimes that was good enough. Either because of technological limitations, or because it was still better than anything else out there, or because it was simply time to move on.
That last criteria is important to recognize, when it hits. If you’re up against a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise, it’s often easy to tell when it’s time to move on. Your time is up. Move on. But, when there is no deadline, or the deadline is flexible, it’s harder. In those cases, evaluate what kind of gains you’re likely to make through further refining, then decide whether to keep pushing, or simply move on. If a year of refining will only push your product from dog-shit up to rabbit-shit, what’s the point? Stop being scared, ship it and move on to something that will yield more important gains.