Perfectionism • 28 October 2011 • The SnowBlog
This is more of a personal, philosophical musing (oh great!) than a Snowbooks thing but I've been thinking a lot about perfectionism lately. When I worked in big business they tended to think in terms of Voltaire's suggestion that "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." Only, because they'd really taken that to heart (and had no idea who Voltaire was) it tended to get mistranslated as "The great is the enemy of the good" which admittedly scans better in English. There was also much talk of the 80/20 rule, which no one could ever really define for me (are you spotting a theme yet?), but which I think came from Pareto's principle that 80% of effects (sometimes) come from 20% of the causes. Thus 80% of the benefits (maybe) come from 20% of the work. Which was taken as a warning that you might have to enormously extend the length of a project just to get a final few percent benefit at the end of it. In theory, if Pareto's principle held, you could get 80% of the benefit on five different projects in the same time you could get 100% of one project ( 5 x 20% = 1 x 100% ).
Perfectionism in most of the large organisations I've worked with was considered to be a species of idealism, which is something that purportedly sits down the opposite end of the spectrum from hard-headed, practical, commercially-viable pragmatism. Not only was perfectionism a way of getting less benefit from your efforts (see above), it was suspected of being an excuse for never delivering your project at all.
I come across the same thing sometimes when I talk to people about writing. The variously-attributed epigram that a work is never completed, it is merely abandoned comes from the idea that we would tinker until doomsday if we weren't forced, by some external deadline, to hand over what we've done.
And all of that is probably true, but I think there are one or two things that also need to be taken into account. One is that criticism and praise are not always assigned in comparable ways. Drawbacks can carry different weights from benefits. I see this most often in customer service: getting a hundred tiny things right can be completely erased by getting one thing wrong. In many situations, zero failures is the most important statistic; doing something impressive is irrelevant until all the negatives are erased. This is as true of good service and public relations as it is of air traffic control. But that's a very pedestrian form of perfectionism: not making any mistakes. I'm also interested in the perfectionism of not watering down your goals. Jeff Bezos, who I seem to be talking about a lot lately, did a brave thing when he created Amazon. He resisted the pressure to compromise when told that his goal of offering a million titles was uncommercial. Offering three-hundred-thousand titles would cost vastly less and deliver most of the benefits because of the 80/20 rule. Hardly anyone buys those titles languishing in the bottom deciles of the million-title bestseller charts. But Jeff stuck to his guns. And, to a great extent, that's what made Amazon special. It was where you could get all the titles that weren't available anywhere else. It invented the idea that the long tail could be profitable. By refusing to take a more 'commercial' approach, Amazon invented a new category of 'commercial' that was much larger.
Apparently Steve Jobs felt that Apple's biggest mistake after he left was to focus on making profit. Ironically it seems - at least for Steve Jobs - that the best way to make money is to focus on making something sensational and new and as perfect as he could get it to be. And the worst way to make money is to focus on making money.
That's what perfectionism can lead to: a redefinition of the rules, a reinvention of the industry, the creation of a completely new thing. It doesn't help you make money in the old way, but it might help you make much more money in some totally new way. If making money is your thing. And if it's not, why would you ever think of compromising your standards? Why wouldn't you try to get things exactly right?
That's the final thing I notice about perfectionism: that it's a much better source of pride than following the 80/20 rule. When I worked in big businesses, I worked on a lot of projects that were about delivering a clone of something that already existed elsewhere. They were 'me too' projects. And none of them ever really made anyone proud or changed the world. There was much talk about why it was stupid, childish even, to dream of creating something perfect, but none of those 'good enough' projects achieved very much.
I think that self-esteem is more important than money, because without self-esteem you're buggered. And I think perfectionism is the best route to the former and a preferable route to riches (if that's your goal). 'Perfectionism' can be just another way of saying that you want to do something exactly and precisely in your own way to the very best of your abilities without letting anyone else muck it up or water it down. Everyone should have a few of those projects to their name (be they big and commercial or tiny and personal) even if the price they pay for creating them is very high. Because, speaking from personal experience, those are the only endeavours you look back on and really feel good about.