How working for a start up cured me of my perfectionist tendencies

It’s probably a combination of genes, 17 years of ballet training and four years at a selective entry school, but I am well and truly a perfectionist. I have two rules in life: if you’re going to do it you need to do it perfectly, and if you can’t do it perfectly then don’t attempt it at all. Actually I have a third rule, which is that I’ll never run for public transport, but it’s not so relevant to this post. By only choosing activities I know I’ll be good at and refining them until they are perfect, I maintain a delicate mental balance (and I’m sure you’ll agree, a very healthy attitude to life).

Then I started working at a start up. Start ups necessarily adopt lean practices – you need to get things out and get them out fast, so as soon as they’re good enough it’s time to let go and move on to the next thing. No smoothing the rough edges, no revisions. This is a completely foreign concept to me. What do you mean by ‘good enough’? There is no such thing as ‘good enough’. It’s either 100% perfect (preferably closer to 120-130%) or it’s no good.

It’s been a very steep and slow learning curve, but I’m slowly being cured of my perfectionist tendencies. It still hurts me a little every time I send out something that’s less than perfect, but I’ve definitely seen how insisting on perfection wastes time and ultimately holds you back.

There’s no time to get things perfect

The company I work for is growing fast and the staff team is a decent size now, but we’re a busy team with a lot projects on the go and heaps more in the queue to come. We could insist things be perfect before releasing them and spend weeks and months refining them, but if we did that we’d have a fraction of the product we have now.

One of my frustrations from previous jobs has been the glacial pace at which projects move. Everyone has to be consulted, all feedback has to be heard and actioned, and if something is one pixel out of the place we need to pull it into line before anyone sees it. While that’s very comforting to my true perfectionist self, it’s a hella frustrating and ridiculously inefficient way to run a business. While it’s not easy to let things go when you know they’re not as good as they could be, the maths are pretty clear. You’ve got 40 hours to get things done this week: would you rather finish one perfect thing or five pretty good things?

Perfection is the enemy of progress

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent an email to our entire database or written what I thought was a killer blog post, set it live and…nothing. A few clicks maybe but not the tsunami wave of response I was expecting. What a waste of time. And if you spend hours getting it perfect before releasing it to the world, how much more time have you wasted?

Chasing perfection will only block your progress. It’s far better to get something, anything, out to test if it works. If it doesn’t, you can move on to the next idea and you haven’t wasted too much time. If it does work, you know it’s worth investing some more time to get it a little better.

This is one of the hardest truths I’ve had to accept because it goes against every fibre of my being to send out something that I know can be better. But I must admit it’s a better way. It’s disappointing when something you’ve worked on doesn’t have the impact you wanted, but it’s even more disappointing when you spent weeks working on it.

You don’t need to get things perfect

There’s this thing called the 80/20 rule that states that in any given project, you get 80% of the value from 20% of the work. Once you’ve done the first 20% of the work you can probably just stop there. Sure, you can get it 20% better but is it worth the remaining 80% of your time?

It’s a really jarring concept for a 120 percenter like me, but I’ve found it to be true time and time again. The blog post I’ve written is good. I could spend several more hours finely crafting the copy, searching for interesting quotes to include and scouring our image library for the perfect, high-resolution photo to go with it. But how much of a difference are all those extra hours of work going to make to the blog post? And how much of a difference are they going to make to the business?

Yes, I could spend several more hours improving the blog post by 20%. Or I could publish it as it is – which is good – and move on to the next task. We spend so long chasing after perfection (well, I do at least), but the sad and liberating reality is that it’s just not necessary. Most of the time, good enough really is good enough.

Perfection is a mirage

How many times have you got something perfect? Really truly perfect, so that you’ve been able to step back, look at your work, and know that there’s nothing more you could do that would improve it even one little bit? Personally, I can’t think of one time.

That’s because, for all the time and energy we put into chasing after it, perfection doesn’t exist. It’s like a mirage in the desert that you think you’re approaching but when you reach it you find it isn’t there. So you keep looking. In everything you do, there’s always going to be something that could be just a little bit better. A clumsily worded sentence you could clean up, a conversation you could have handled better, a bathroom you could get a little cleaner if you just spent a bit more time or energy on it. And if you put that time or energy into it, you’ll notice something else that could be just a bit better.

It’s natural and admirable to want to do the best you can, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But when the only acceptable version of the best you can is perfect, you’ll spend a lot of time and energy reaching for something that isn’t there.

So as I re-read this blog post, I’ll fix up any misspellings or inaccuracies but apart from that I think it’s pretty good. And that’s good enough.

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