The Problem With Perfectionism
Several years ago, I took a series of literary creative writing classes at the Irish Writer’s Centre in Dublin. We met every Monday and Wednesday evening in a well-lit classroom overlooking a park.
Our instructor, a balding author from Texas, critiqued our short stories. Then, he tasked us with writing “one great sentence.” He presented 20th-century heavy-weight authors like Ernest Hemingway and Anaïs Nin as the impossible bar to which we should all aspire.
I spent the next year going in search of that great sentence. I wrote and rewrote the same collection of a dozen short stories without submitting them to an editor or a writing contest. Every time I read my stories, I spotted sentences I could polish and ideas worth fixing.
My stories didn’t improve much despite all the hours I put into them, before and after work. My pursuit of perfectionism prevented me from getting actionable feedback from readers and an editor, even if that feedback equated to rejection.
Years later, I learnt how to ship and publish my work mostly because I landed a job as a freelance writer. My editor told me, “Bryan if you don’t send your articles in on time, you’re not getting paid.”
So, I got into the habit of accepting good enough and I used this mindset to start writing and publishing articles online. It helped me start my first content website and that lead me to earning my first few hundred dollars from content publishing.
I thought I was pretty good at writing online back then, but today, when I review articles and blog posts I wrote for one of my sites, I can see dozens of problems and issues to fix.
Putting in more reps naturally hones your creative skills. It becomes easier to see gaps in past works because you know what to look for. It’s kind of like learning to appreciate craft beer or freshly roasted coffee or cheap lager or instant. Once you’ve learnt to appreciate the latter, the former is awful.
I’ve had lots of lousy ideas for content websites and courses to create and launch. I’ve laboured over articles for dozens of hours only to hear the sound of cricket after hitting submit. On other occasions, I’ve knocked out an article in thirties minutes and watched it continue to generate web traffic and affiliate revenue longer after I pressed publish on one of my sites.
Don’t let a pursuit of perfectionism get in the way of pressing publish or submit. You’ll get much better feedback from the response (or lack thereof) from an ideal audience or readers. A pursuit of perfectionism is a recipe for procrastination and misery. In the book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland write,
If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error. Inevitably, your work (like, uh, the preceding syllogism...) will be flawed. Why? Because you’re a human being, and only human beings, warts and all, make art. Without warts it is not clear what you would be, but clearly you wouldn’t be one of us."
I travelled to Japan several years ago. In Kyoto, I learnt all about Kintsuigi. It describes the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and gold. The idea behind Kintsuigi is to embrace flaws and imperfections to create better art.
Building a business in the creator economy is part art and part science. You’ll make mistakes and fix them along the way. But it’s also good to balance the creative work behind a business with some real-world insights from customers and an audience.
Dropbox famously started as a minimum viable product whereby founder Drew Houston and team realised an explainer video back in 2007, showing how this software enabled instant sync of files between computers. File sharing was much harder and more cumbersome in the early 2000s, as anyone with a memory stick can attest to. This shaky explainer video drove tens of thousands of early sign-ups and validated their business idea. Dropbox was born. Author Eric Reis summarises the idea of the MVP in the Lean Startup, writing:
“The big question of our time is not Can it be built? but Should it be built? This places us in an unusual historical moment: our future prosperity depends on the quality of our collective imaginations.
If you’re a creator working online today, what’s your minimum viable creative idea? Pick one and ship an early version of it out in the world so you can get feedback from a would-be ideal audience. Then pick another and repeat until you find your niche. It’s much easier to test an idea than it is to spend hours labouring alone over a creative project for months without knowing if it’s what your audience wants.
If you want to test an idea for an article quickly and easily, consider writing a thread about it on Twitter or answering a question related to your ideal niche or subject matter on Quora. Medium is another great place for testing ideas before investing time and money in starting a content website.
I toyed with the idea of starting a content website testing business software. I wrote a couple of articles about this topic for another publication and then realised I’d no interest in this niche. I saved myself a lot of time and expense.
The flaws and chinks in an idea or creative project can lend it character and originality.
Read my list of perfectionism solutions
Until next time,
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