I’d Rather Be Prolific than Perfect

In Silicon Valley, there is a great deal of worship around Steve Jobs and the altar of perfection, so allow me to explain my preference.

Being Perfect

As a former gymnast, I know what it’s like to pursue perfection.

Being perfect means practicing the same skills and routines over and over and over again, until you have it just right. Perfect means trying fighting to fix every tiny mistake, every last detail so that when you salute the judge in a competition, they can’t find a single flaw.

In recent years, the gymnastics code of points has changed to favor performing more difficult and innovative skills/routines over performing easier ones flawlessly. Some people lament the loss of the “Perfect 10.0”, but in my view, gymnasts have demonstrated far greater skill, power and grace in their performances since the rule changes took place.

Another thing to recognize is that in gymnastics, skills and routines are performed by individuals judged according to a internationally federated code of points, allowing the conception of perfection to exist and potentially be achieved.

In the business world, products and services are produced by many individuals and judged by consumers, who vary greatly in their tastes and preferences, making it impossible to cohere around any kind of perfection. Ask any developer, designer, or marketer and they’ll tell you that that consumer behavior is surprising and rarely coherent.

Being Prolific

The alternative to being perfect then, is being prolific.

That means optimizing for quantity - working faster, on more drafts/iterations of whatever it is that you seek to create or produce. You may choose to release your work to the public in the form of a blog post, or a beta release, (and I recommend you do) but you don’t have to.

I am reminded of the father of modern photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson and his famous quote: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”. You’ve got to take a lot of photos to get to photo number ten-thousand-and-one.

Focusing on being prolific frees you from the mindset of a critic – where all you think about is what’s wrong with what you’re doing, rather than with what’s good and what can be built upon. Being prolific means thinking about “What could make this more awesome? and "What’s the fastest way I could make that work?” These types of questions are valuable and stimulate the creative juices.

Ironically, striving to be prolific will probably make you better than striving to be perfect. In the book Art and Fear, the authors tell the story of a ceramics professor that decides to grade half the class on the quality of their final piece and the other half on sheer weight of a semester’s worth of work.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The pursuit of perfection can be exhilarating. Setting an extremely high bar for yourself sharpens your focus and puts you on the edge. Pursuing perfection makes you better and has its time and place.

But when it comes to making an impact and producing work that matters, the world is far too varied and changing far too fast to adhere to narrow vision of perfection.

And that’s why, all things being equal, I’d rather be prolific than perfect.


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