The one about standards


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Picture a scene.

It’s a job interview.

“What’s your greatest weakness?”

A moment of thought.

And then, the answer.

“I guess I can be too much of a perfectionist.”

Oh. Fuck. Me.

It’s just one of those answers, isn’t it?

The false modesty thing that pops up every now and then.

Might come from a good intention, but rarely produces a good outcome.

But now let’s pause on this for a second.

Is perfectionism a strength, or is it a weakness?

Well, if you’re a regular reader, you may already guess my perspective on this.

The answer, of course, is “yes”.

It’s both, but the trick is in the dosage.

Too little perfectionism and you get a bit of a shitty job.

Too much perfectionism and you never really get started.

We all know examples of the former, but I’m fascinated by examples of the latter.

Because it means all the standards in the world are not enough to get shit done.

Sometimes you just gotta move fast and break things.

And – gasp! – not always get it right.

(Your ego is hating this right now, and so is mine. Let’s say with this feeling.)

I found this quote about perfectionism that I think is quite apt.

"Perfectionism is trying to get the world to believe something about you, that you don’t believe about you."

The source, sadly, is anonymous.

But we’re not gonna let its implications be, now are we?

The interesting thing about perfectionism is not how we do it.

It’s why we do it.

And, crucially, the “why”s that come after that initial answer.

Because, often, I think it comes down to proving a point.

This, to be clear, is not a bad thing.

There are worse motivations than wanting to prove a past “enemy” wrong.

Or wanting to overcome past flaws that you’d rather not return to.

Now, of course we all owe it to ourselves and others to have high standards.

But there are high standards, and there is perfectionism.

High standards are about keeping a high baseline.

Perfectionism is about feeling the baseline is never high enough.

There’s also a clear parallel here with obsessing with the efficiency of things.

Instead of the effectiveness of things.

Perfectionism is wanting to save so much money you stop growing a business.

Instead of thinking about saving enough but also investing enough.

(This is assuming that if you invest you still have sufficient cash flow, of course.)

Perfectionism is wanting to control how people do something.

Instead of guiding them on what needs done and letting them work it out.

Perfectionism is feeling you can always do more work, ~and~ more side gigs.

(Lol 👀.)

Instead of feeling you’ve done enough work, and have enough nourishing projects.

Perfectionism is never feeling you are enough and that slowly destroying you.

Instead of humbly recognising your strengths and going from there.

Perfectionism is wanting to craft so pure a brand purpose…

… that you end up spending 4 workshops to agree on “bring people together”.

(Don’t mock, we’ve all seen it and/or been a part of it.)

Instead of, like my pal Alex says, getting the gist of things and moving on.

If I were to plot it as a graph, it would look something like this.

Because at the end of perfectionism, you may have even shipped something.

But then one of two things will happen.

It may be great, but you got close to burning out along the way.

(From experience, not always worth it.)

Or it may not be great, and you got close to burning out along the way.

(From experience, definitely not worth it.)

I think we often assume that people care as much about stuff as we do.

As marketers we do this all the time – I call it the Corporate IKEA Effect.

We invest so much in a product we assume everyone else loves it.

We invest so much in a presentation we assume everyone else is super invested too.

We invest so much in a campaign that we assume consumers will obviously connect.

And look, none of these things are wrong, and they do deserve high standards.

But it goes back to the problem of perfectionism.

That we want to people to believe something, that maybe we don’t believe ourselves.

Maybe it’s a good product, but not the best product the world has ever seen.

(This is ok. All products have problems. This is why we iterate.)

Maybe it’s a good presentation, but not the seed of the next great IPA award.

(This is ok. All presentations have problems. This is why we iterate.)

Maybe it’s a good campaign, but not the next great ~thing that populates culture~.

(This is ok. All campaigns have problems. This is why we iterate.)

I hope by now you see a pattern here.

We place huge value on the things we do.

But the perfectionist trap is assuming that perfection, in itself, is possible.

Which means no further improvement can be made.

And no further growth is to be achieved.

That’s it. We’ve made it.

Except nothing really works that way, now does it?

When working in complex or uncertain environments, perfectionism is a problem.

It slows you down, and the costs often are higher than the benefits.

High standards = aspire to quality while aiming for velocity and effectiveness.

Perfectionism = obsess with quality at the expense of velocity and effectiveness.

TL;DR: In case of doubt, fuck perfectionism, focus on effectiveness.

That’s my current view on it, and it may change over the next few months.

Perfectionism is a fascinating subject, and there’s far more to it than just this.

But for now, I’d like to hear from you.

What’s your relationship with perfectionism?

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Stay safe. Stay sane.


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