“Be a disciplined half-ass”
I don’t have a life motto, but if I did, this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on creativity Big Magic might be a good candidate. At first, it seems an odd thing to lay claim to. Surely, in the words of that other sage, Ron Swanson, we should avoid being a half-ass at all costs. (“Don’t half-ass two things – whole ass one thing”). But the truth is: it has a lot of merit both in the creative and the business fields. To create something, you need to balance these two seemingly conflicting skills – to work as hard as you possibly can to make something great – like, really, really work at it. But also, to be able to reach a stage where you can go, ‘screw it, it’s good enough, I’m done’.
Done is (nearly always) better than perfect
They say the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that’s true. It’s also the enemy of actually getting anything done at all. Is it worth entering this writing competition, sending my MS to an agent, applying for this job, if what I am submitting isn’t perfect? Is it worth even sitting down to try and write this book, this play, this grant application, if it won’t be as good as I want it to be? If I can’t dedicate the time to doing it exactly the way I want to? But the result of all that perfectionism is that you don’t write the book, apply for the job, or enter that competition, when all around you your peers – and, dare I say it, sometimes your less talented peers – are reaping the rewards of having done just that.
(Getting back to Ron Swanson: there’s a perfect example of this in the TV show Parks and Rec, when Ron has to throw a barbeque for his colleagues. His strict ideas about what makes an ideal grill delays proceedings till everyone is grouchy and fed up, and derails a day that was meant to be a celebration. Sometimes, folks don’t want the perfectly crafted artisnal burger: they just need something to eat.)
The world of work
It’s not just in the creative spheres this can harm you. I spend a lot of my business life producing marketing material for lawyers (I mostly work in a niche field, called directories), and I admit for years it frustrated me that they always seemed to miss deadlines. They’re lawyers, for God’s sake! They’re used to working insane hours, they’re comfortable with vast amounts of documents and intricate detail… how can this stuff be hard for them?
Until I realised, of course, that it wasn’t just the obvious issue of priorities (their client work, not unreasonably, coming first) but that they were competing with their internal training. A lawyer lives for perfection: when you are drafting a multi-million-pound contract, you want that shit to be tight – no mistakes, no loopholes. (It’s also hard if you are used to working in fields where there is a right answer to suddenly be asked to operate in a sphere where the most certain you will ever get to is ‘best guess’, because so many variables are outwith your – and sometimes anyone’s – control.) They were baffled by my seemingly contradictory messages: at the start of a project, the need to get things as good as they could possibly be (and my willingness to nitpick the detail to get to that stage), but then, when you’ve done all that work and you get to the deadline, shrug your shoulders and go, meh, it’ll do.*
But the ones who have learned to embrace this paradox often find an agility that is useful in more ways than one. It’s a philosophy that can be usefully applied in so many areas of life, simply because it helps you get a lot of stuff done. And it matters in more than one sphere of business, where sometimes if you sit around marinating an idea or a project until it’s 100%, you find that someone else beats you to the punch simply because they took the step of putting their idea out there before you.
(*I mean, within limits – obviously don’t be sending stuff that isn’t factually accurate, or is majorly flawed. But in general, getting something done well-ish on time is better than doing something amazing that is never appreciated because it misses the deadline).
Go for it, anyway
I have a sideline helping people craft CVs. It fits surprisingly well into my overarching work motto (which is about telling my own stories, and helping other people tell theirs), and it’s incredibly rewarding to help people recognise their own skills and talents.
But it also shows how often we are crippled by perfectionism. And, yes, it’s a cliché but it’s true – women tend to suffer from this more than men. How often do you see a barely qualified man confidently apply for a job, while a much more qualified woman holds back because she doesn’t meet 5% of the criteria? (This can of course be exacerbated further if you are from a group that is under-represented in your chosen field, where you have the pressure to be perfect not just for your own sake, but also because you might be unfairly judged as representative for anyone like you – so you’re scared of messing up not just your chances, but those of everyone coming after you.)
Whereas if you embraced the imperfection – accept you’ll never be a 100% fit, but work hard, commit to learning as you go, and you can be good enough – you could find your perfect role? (A friend of mine did just this: unhappy in her job, she applied for a similar role in a different company. The one drawback? An essential criterion was a science degree, and she has not an ounce of science-related experience. She decided to apply anyway, making the case that she had enough experience in other areas to do the role well. Result: she got the job, and is thriving at it, and her lack of a science degree is actually an advantage – it gives her a fresh perspective her colleagues lack.) Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everything – I really, really want my doctor and my airline pilot to be appropriately qualified – but since most of us aren’t curing cancer or flying planes, it’s not a bad guiding principle.
The curse of being 90% ready
I admit I’m not immune to this syndrome myself. Whenever I go through a period of creative self-doubt, it’s the ability to finish things that suffers. Sure, I can write things. When people say, ‘what are you working on right now?’, I can answer honestly – oh, I have a book on the go. I’m working on a play. And that’s a remarkably comfortable position to be in. I get to be a writer with none of the attendant hassles – none of the criticism, scrutiny (or worse, apathy) that greets a finished project in the world. (A writer friend of mine says the most dangerous thing to have is a ‘90% draft’ – because you convince yourself it’s done but not quite ready, not yet – and it’s easy to end up with a ton of them lying around.)
But I have also found I thrive most when I adhere to the mantra of the disciplined half-ass. In part, this is a skill I honed from necessity, having spent a long time working in industries with tight publication / broadcast deadlines. When you’ve had to get a 500-word review in by the 9am print deadline for the play you saw last night, or to stitch together four different subtitling files for a TV programme that is going live on national TV right now, you quickly learn to get things done now and worry about them later. I’m ridiculously indecisive in many areas of my life (ask me to pick a restaurant, and we both might well starve), but in my work life I’ve carved out a reputation for effectiveness often simply by having the willingness to press go on something other people are holding off on until they are 100% sure.
It’s a skill that has also served me well in my writing. I’m not the best writer out there, I know that. I’m not the most talented, or savvy, or skilled, and I’m definitely not the most successful. But I’ve had my plays put on in London theatres. I’ve published 8 books. I’ve won half a dozen story competitions, written dozens of magazine and website articles, hundreds of blog posts. Would I be better off if I had spent years honing each book till it was perfect? Waiting till I found the ideal agent, the big publisher, the perfect moment? Honestly, maybe I would. But I might also have a drawer full of manuscripts nobody ever read, instead of the career of variety and delight I have managed to carve out for myself.
I didn’t do it perfectly. But by God, I got it done.
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