The Paralysis of Perfect
Trying to learn from mistakes so I can make more
I’m job-hunting. I haven’t told many people yet, but I bring it up to make a broader point: I have become paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection.
Let me explain.
I’m leaving Symantec mid-May. I have mixed feelings about it. I love my team. Seriously. Real, emotionally invested love. I’m incredibly proud of the work we did to launch the first responsive Norton site, and their help over the past year provided me with a generous-enough work-life balance to actively participate in almost every aspect of my daughter’s first year.
But this isn’t about why it’s time to move on; it’s about the discovery process of finding what’s next.
I have a short list of requirements for my next challenge:
1) Work for a company that makes things I love.
2) Pray that said company is based in San Francisco.
3) There is no third requirement.
Using these qualifications, I targeted a handful of places where I want to contribute. Some of them have open roles I’m qualified to take on, but most don’t. So each needs some sort of targeted approach to get my skills noticed.
For the past few weeks, I’ve used my friends to make connections at the places I want to work. I wrote emails. I sent DMs. I made phone calls and had lunches. Every single request was met with whole-hearted enthusiasm to help. (Thank you, again, to everyone who has contributed.) But even though it’s usually difficult for me to ask for help of any kind, I’ve found that’s been the easiest part so far. The hard part has been what comes next.
See, I’m terrified of rejection, especially a rejection based on something I may have done incorrectly. Consequently, every time I have an idea about how to sell myself to one of the companies on my targeted list, I get three-fourths of the way through the process and start to panic. Is this approach good enough? Am I the millionth person to try this idea? Could I have done this better?
I’m not used to being judged on a single moment of inspiration. I’ve grown accustomed to the iterative process that Silicon Valley is so fond of. I’m used to testing. And versioning. And continuous improvement based on feedback and results. But even in the Bay Area’s highly publicized culture of “Done is better than perfect,” jobseekers never get a second chance to make a first impression. We aren’t given feedback. We can’t take what we’ve learned and make things better. The process ignores exactly what we are supposed to be good at: progress.
During my new quest, I’ve come up with a few ideas to try and get noticed by some of the companies I want to join. I made a custom playlist for a gig I wanted at Rdio. I shared a draft post about my skills with @ev to see if there’s room for me at Medium. I started a private channel on Slack for some people I want to work with over there highlighting some of my past accomplishments and future goals. I’ve had some other great ideas about how to get noticed, but I get so frightened about the possibility of executing them poorly that I hesitate and procrastinate and leave many of them unfinished. I think I have a mild case of PTSD from the one time I threw caution to the wind and went full-throttle toward my dream job.
In the fall of 1999, I saw an MTV news report about the Foo Fighters dropping out of Woodstock because Franz Stahl had left the band. “Huh,” I thought. “I wonder how they’re going to replace him?” I looked up the Foo Fighters’s publicist, got someone at Nasty Little Man to take my call, and found out that the band was going to be holding auditions. After a few more phone calls, I got the address to the Foo’s management company, G.A.S. Entertainment, put together a package of stuff I had played on, wrote a short letter, and shoved it all in a FedEx envelope headed to Los Angeles.
A couple of days later, I got a call from Gus Brandt. He told me he was tour manager for the Foo Fighters and wanted to know where to send a tape of songs for me to learn and how soon I could get to Los Angeles. Holy. Shit.
I got a package the next day. The only item in it was a tape. (For younger readers, you can find an explanation of cassette tapes here.) I made a copy of it immediately, just in case. There were four songs on it: “I’ll Stick Around,” “Everlong,” “A320,” and “Aurora.”
I already knew how to play the first two, but the relatively new “A320” was from a soundtrack for a pretty terrible movie and “Aurora” had yet to be released. I had new Foo!
I practice for hours. I was working two jobs, and still playing in a couple of bands, but I managed to find time to play those songs over and over and over. And when I needed a break from them, I practiced any Foo song I could get my hands on — not just the four on the cassette, but every song they had ever recorded.
A few days later, I flew from Tallahassee to L.A. First-class. (My parents bought my ticket for me — I didn’t know about the upgrade surprise until I got to the airport. Thanks again, guys.) I had a layover in Dallas, but weather was terrible. My flight there got in late, and I missed my connection. My audition was scheduled for late afternoon that day, and now I wasn’t going to get into L.A. until close to 10 p.m. I ran to a pay phone, got hold of Gus, and told him what was happening. The only spot left was days later. I was going to be stuck in L.A. over the weekend, waiting for my shot.
At least I had more time to practice.
I had been to Los Angeles a few times before, but I wasn’t a big fan, which was good — I wanted to keep playing those songs. So, instead of sightseeing, I spent most of the weekend in my hotel room with that tape and my guitar. I would occasionally walk down the block, grab some McDonalds, and watch “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” over dinner while dialing into their contestant line, just for something else to do. (We can talk about how that turned out later. Shit, maybe that’s relevant to my fear of making mistakes, too.)
Anyway, my rescheduled audition moved from Monday to Tuesday because the band needed to film a video on Monday. Now, I’m scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. Another day to practice. I was more than ready. At this point, I think I could play reggae, waltz, and polka versions of those four songs.
I drove out to Mates studios in North Hollywood. There were a few open doors to rehearsal spaces, so I start peering into all of them to figure out where I should set up. The first is less a rehearsal space and more the size of the Cow Haus, the club I was moonlighting at, and the place where most of my bands practiced. The room had tons of gear set up, including a full lighting rig, but there was nobody in there. The next door I walked passed was crammed with people playing the slowest slow jam I had ever heard. It was like a sweaty R&B dirge. Not what I was looking for. The third door I came to was closed. I yanked on the door knob to discover a startled guy sitting on a couch in the corner of the room, hunched over a Fender Strat, pages of notes spread all over the floor, sweating out one of the songs on the audition cassette. “You here for the audition?” he asked. “Yep,” was all I could muster, and I folded onto the opposite end of the couch, clutching my guitar case. I dared not open it, because I didn’t want him to think I still needed to practice.
Gus came in a few minutes later. We all introduced ourselves, and he asked who wanted to go first. I told him I’d love to, but that the other guy had gotten there before me. Gus and I both looked over to him and he said, “No, you can go.”
I grabbed my case and followed Gus next door. The door opened into a very dark, small space, not much bigger than the living room I’m sitting in now. I scanned the room. Taylor was sitting, shirtless, on a couch, flipping through the yellow pages of a legal pad, occasionally scrawling on them with a black Sharpie. Nate had his back to me, standing near a large bass rig. Dave was looking right at me. “Hi, I’m Dave,” he said, with one of the biggest, most welcoming smiles I’ve ever seen, even to this day. “Guys, this is Stephen. He’s from Florida,” Gus said.
Taylor glanced up, smiled, and quickly rotated a jutted-out, stiff-arm, open-handed wave before going back to looking at the legal pad. Nate looked over his left shoulder, smiled big, and gave me a single, welcoming nod.
I think I said hello.
“You can plug in over there,” Dave said as he motioned over toward Nate. Sitting next to Nate’s rig was a 4x12 cabinet topped by two heads, a Marshall JCM900 and a MESA/Boogie Dual Rectifier like the one I had envied my friend Will having. I wanted to play with the MESA, but I didn’t want to have to learn a new head while trying to impress these guys. Instead, I plugged in to the Marshall, since it was the closest option to the JMP I had at home.
I laid out some cables, my tuner and distortion pedals, and some patch chords. Dave spotted my distortion box and said, “Is that an old Rat pedal? Nice!” This was off to a good start. Everybody tuned up, Taylor got behind the kit, and Dave turned to me and asked, “So, what do you want to play?” Since I had missed my originally scheduled audition because of the flight delay, I had no idea how many people they had played with and assumed that most of them were choosing the older songs. “Let’s do the new ones,” I said. Pointing at me with an extended drum stick, Taylor said, “I like this guy.” Sweet.
Now, all I had to do was play great.
We started with “A320.” Honestly, I don’t remember anything about it, which makes me think it went fine — no fireworks, but no flameouts. Next up, “Aurora.” Dave asked if I wanted to do the echoey intro part. I told him I didn’t have an echo pedal. “No problem, you do the other parts,” he instructed. No problem was right; I knew them all.
Dave starts, and it’s glorious. It sounds even better live than on the recording. It’s at about this point that I notice Dave has a new tattoo on his recently clean-shaven neck: two elaborate black Fs. “Wow,” I think to myself. “I bet I’m one of the few people to see that.”
Nate and Taylor join in. I wait until it’s time to add the first chiming strums and arpeggios. We all start building to the chorus. “Hell, yeah, I remember Aurora.” We sound good. I start to relax. This feels natural.
Take me now
We can spin the sun around
And the stars will all come out
Then we’ll turn and come back down
Turn and come back down
At this point, my confidence is sky-high. I’m playing two different guitar lines at the same time during the second verse. We build back into the chorus and it’s another glorious moment. I am ecstatic.
Then the bridge comes; it’s heavier than on the recording. And it sounds fantastic! We are rocking it now. Nate is looking at me and smiling. I look back at Taylor, and he’s a blur of enthusiastic energy. Dave is singing, so I just see that glorious new tattoo.
On and and on, aurora wait for everyone
Wait ‘til the last one’s done
On to the last chorus. I’ve got this.
Following the chorus, we go back to the intro to build into the coda. I love this part. I’ve been humming it in my sleep. It’s just Dave and the echoes of the repeated intro riff. Then, quietly, Nate joins. Then I join. Taylor starts to build on the floor toms. Dave turns away from the mic — vocals are done. We’re all pointed inward into a single, cohesive circle, heads down, bringing this thing home. Louder. Together. Louder. United. Louder. Forged as one. And that’s when it hits me: I’ve lost count of how many measures we’ve done.
I’m looking around for someone, anyone, to make eye contact with me. Everybody is still heads down, crafting a masterpiece. I’m without a lifeline.
But we’re in sync, right, working as one unit, sharing a brain? If I just relax, I’m sure I’ll just feel the right moment to break into the main closing. I do a huge pick slide and go for it. Taylor lifts his head.
I’ve broken the spell.
He looks at Dave. Dave lifts his head slightly, too, just enough to make eye contact with Taylor and slowly shake his head, “No.”
I came in too early.
I plod along for another measure. Dave’s body starts to lift up a bit, and I know now is the time. We break into the majestic end. It’s all bombast and cymbals and loud explorations and a controlled chaos of crescendo. Taylor starts the tight rolls that will draw us to a close.
I’m almost in tears.
The song ends, the final echoes from Dave’s amp reverberating all the way down, deep in my imperfect soul.
“That was pretty good,” Dave says.
“Thanks,” I mumbled — I think.
“We’ll let you know.” Gus adds from the couch.
“Uh, you think I can get a picture before I go,” I ask, timidly, all confidence gone.
“Sure!” Dave is happy to please.
Gus takes our photo. I pack my gear, wave goodbye to the band as they prep for the next guitarist up. Taylor is already back on the couch flipping through the legal pad.
I throw my gear into my rental car, and drive to the only place I know directions to, Universal Studios. I pay for parking and get a $2 bill back as change. I park the rental, head to Universal CityWalk, and have the most expensive sushi lunch of my life. I keep the $2 bill in my wallet to this day.
That failure still haunts me weekly, at least. I have anxiety dreams about showing up to play Foo gigs without something important — like my guitar. I put everything I had into that audition. Even now, more than 15 years later, I bet I could play you most of their pre-2000 catalog from memory. But it was all for naught. Sure, I got to play with them for 30-or-so minutes, and I’ll never forget that, but I was sure that gig was mine. I worked so hard for it. I practiced so hard for it. I love those songs so much. We played so well for so much of the audition. Yet, here I sit — an apartment full of guitars, most collecting dust, tearing up about blowing one of the biggest opportunities of my life.
Without that failure, however, I wouldn’t have the life I have today. The friends made in San Francisco. The ideas learned from people much smarter than me. The family created that I never knew I wanted. Failing that audition was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
But now, every time I put effort and energy and enthusiasm into an idea I want to become a reality, I freeze up, fearing another colossal collapse. I know there are plenty of jobs I can do. I know there are many places where I would be a great addition. I know I’ll find the courage to pursue them. I just don’t want to ruin my chances for another dream gig with something stupid like a typo, or a bad link, or a missed email. Or a huge pick slide a measure too early.
But I do need a new gig soon. Know anyone who needs a failed Foo Fighter?
Oh, one other thing to keep in mind: I ended up writing this instead of focusing on rewriting my resume one more time. I was worried about making a mistake.