Do good enough and perfection will follow; try for perfection and risk failing to be good enough.
After graduating I took a teacher position at boarding school. I was put in a flat with another new teacher called Will Gould. Longterm we both wanted to be filmmakers, and in our spare time we were developing projects: I was writing a feature script and he was writing and developing a short film.
At this point we were in similar positions, but his career would later rocket up to stratospheric levels, while mine is taking a bumpier more earth-bound route (for now at least).
Prepared for luck
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers book, the outliers (people who have achieved phenomenal success, e.g. Bill Gates) readily acknowledge that luck played a significant part. And likewise, Gould had some good fortune that made his jump to London-based TV work relatively fluid; however, like most successful people, he had worked hard to be in a position to take advantage of good luck when it came knocking.
So leaving aside luck and the likelihood that he is simply more talented, could there be something specifically different in our approaches to life?
The answer could lie in the different way we played video games.
The Nintendo N64 console had just come out and we sometimes borrowed a school video projector to play “big” screen. Three critical games at the time were Mario 64, Turok, and The Legend of Zelda.
Whereas I played these games stubbornly trying to find all the hidden stars, areas, weapons, powerups, etc., Gould would move swiftly doing the minimum needed to get to the next level. And it wasn’t long before he completed the games, while my plodding perfectionism dragged on. Gould then, having conquered the core of the game, would returned to the start of the games and seek out the extras. In the case of Mario 64 he later found every single star — perfection!
Gould approached his film-making career the same way. After a mixed bag of short films, one low-budget feature, and a lot of hard TV drama script editing work, he moved onto producing, and eventually became the Head of Drama at Tiger Aspect — one of the UK’s most successful and prolific television production companies. Here he oversaw critically acclaimed global series such as Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders.
This underlying approach towards obtaining mastery provides some critical life lessons that I have been adopting into my own life, while also trying to inculcate it in my kids.
Good enough leads to perfection
Whatever you are doing it is generally best to focus on doing the core things that will ensure the work is good enough such that you can continually “level up”. If you obsess on trying to be perfect too soon, you increase the chances of burning out before the job is done.
Vigorously and consistently do good enough and perfection will follow; whereas aiming for perfection risks not even reaching good enough.
As you and your enlightened good-enough contemporaries rise up through the ranks, your aggregated skills will grow and perfection will start to catch up. Eventually, you will arrive at a position of power such that the collective skills and support needed to achieve practical perfection will scoop you up towards glory.
It takes greater strength to handle success than failure, so at this juncture you will either be run over by the extra expectations, or catapulted into new realms of responsibility.
Those with a growth mindset will ensure they are always in new positions to learn and grow. So it is no surprise Gould recently started his own production company Moonage, which has already secured a major deal with Sky Television.
Perfection is an excuse for not doing
If you find yourself giving up because you fail to achieve “perfection” you have to ask yourself some hard questions: Am I blaming a supposed need for perfection because I’m actually scared of putting myself into the arena for fear of public exposure to ridicule? Or am I using the pursuit of perfection to mask fundamental inadequacies in my capabilities?
One of these states is highly probably. And the only way to overcome their constrictions is to focus on doing the immediate core things that will get you sufficient notice to make it through to the next stage.
The bestselling book The One Thing provides some helpful advice on how to go about selecting the most beneficial things to focus on to maximize returns at any given time.
So don’t try to do things perfectly, just try to get things perfectly done — as in finished; so that you can learn the necessary lessons that will enable you to reach the next level. And remember that the most critical lessons usually come at the finishing stages, so there is value in simply completing stuff even if it’s not great.
Another contemporary of mine, who also went on to great things, is the film director Neil Marshal. At the time I got to know him he had recently written and edited his first feature film Killing Time. It was poorly reviewed and ended up in the discount baskets of the video rental stores. Marshal would tell people not to watch it because it was crap. But he actually had a feature film (crap or otherwise) physically in the video stores, which was a significant level up from the short films stage most us were stuck at.
The critical thing is to relentlessly do and do it better each time; whether it’s making a film or founding a startup. That way success will inexorably beat a path to your door.
The Cult of Done Manifesto
I must give credit to The Cult of Done Manifesto, which helped me to focus my thinking around this topic. Some of my favourite quotes being:
Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
Done is the engine of more.
So while always keeping an eye towards it don’t worry about perfection, just worry about getting things done. This way you are less likely to become professionally paralyzed and more likely to reach the perfection you so desire.
And while this thinking is undoubtedly flawed, I now share it in the believe it has enough substance to evolve into something of substance over time.
In the meantime, happy doing!