The Art of Finishing Something

A man walks past a graffiti mural that says “Good” on a bright sunny day.
Photo: Volkan Olmez via Unsplash

By the time you’re done reading this piece, you will have a sense of accomplishment. You can scratch this off your list. You will also realize that looking back is a way to look forward, that perfection is a worthy goal and you might pick up a better appreciation of eggplant along the way.

But enough about you.

One of the biggest problems I have is finishing a project. Whether it’s a piece of writing, design or music, there’s always just one more thing that could be better or that I’m not quite sure about. At some point I have to cross my fingers and just hit “send” or nothing will ever come from all my work.

However, sometimes I need a little extra convincing and below are some ideas that help me see things through.

Retrospection is Crucial

When I go back and listen to my older recordings, I’m almost always surprised by how little I cringe. “It’s not bad” I think, remembering the insecurity I felt right after the recording session or when the album was released. But with some distance, a lot of distance, the emotional memory of the feelings I felt during and right after the recording faded. I can no longer remember what I meant to do. It’s almost like listening to someone else; my former self.

Experiencing that retrospection is so important to ensure that the next time I’m faced with the self-doubt, I’ve created a new memory of listening back and being ok with it. Doing this repeatedly reinforces the new memory and eventually, the insecurity gives way to the feeling that it will probably be fine.

Done is better than… not done?

There is a famous quote from Sheryl Sandberg from her book Lean In which I have mixed feelings about. “Done is better than perfect.” Yes, we want to finish projects and no, we don’t want to be perfectionists, but there needs to be a balance. Doing shoddy work just so you can move on to the next thing might explain Facebook’s user interface issues, but it doesn’t translate to a solid business model or a healthy creative practice.

We have to believe in the work we do. We have to feel confident in what we put into the world bearing our name. What’s good enough? What was good enough for Picasso? What was good enough for Stravinsky? Good work takes time, but there is a limit and that is a personal decision that takes time to figure out.

Personally, some of my compositions take a while to be fully formed and some seem almost pre-written. Worst case scenario: I work on something for months and finally give up on it, but I look at that as part of the process. In order to write the good ones I have to write a few clunkers now and then.

One of the tunes on my upcoming album was a waltz I wrote for the late guitarist John Abercrombie. I had planned to record it with him but never had the chance. And if I had, some of the chords would have been wrong. I shelved the piece after he passed away, and when I finally got it out this summer I realized my mistakes. That one could have done with a little more time, but then can’t we all.

Two women look at a computer screen in front of huge windows on a sunny day.
Photo: Kobu Agency via Unsplash

Ask A Friend

Sometimes we can get so attached to and engrossed by what we’re working on that we develop a kind of creative snow-blindness. We lose perspective on it because we’ve been working on it so intently that we can’t tell which way is up or down anymore. In those instances, it’s good to have someone you can bounce things off that you trust. They might tell you “it’s great, well done.” In which case, have a drink. You’ve earned it.

Alternatively, they might say something like, “that’s really interesting.” And you’ll say “what does that mean?” And they’ll say “is that supposed to be a gorilla?” And you’ll get offended and blurt out “of course it’s not a gorilla. Don’t you know an eggplant when you see one?” To which they’ll respond “Oh, I really think it would work better with a banana.”

Criticism is hard and you have to be ready for it. Value it. Maybe they’re right. But maybe they are giving you a test to see if you really believe in eggplants (that’s aubergines, for my UK readers). Maybe you didn’t realize how much you believed in eggplants until now and you find yourself climbing up on top of your desk to exclaim (in a British accent) “The aubergine stays!”

It could be that they just suggest some mild tweaking you didn’t think of and, presto change-o, you have a masterpiece on your hands. Or you realize that it was a good try but you botched the execution and… yeah, bananas.

We have to test ourselves to really find out what we’re willing to fight for. I’m lucky to have a creative partner I can bounce ideas off of. Everyone needs someone they can turn to for perspective. Be smart. Seek that person out. Sometimes they can be the difference between done and not done.

Tiny Victories

I think we need to find the balance between done and perfect by racking up tiny victories with things that are easy for us, and slave over the things we think need it. I just designed an album cover in like 3 minutes and I actually like it. Not all album covers will be that easy, especially if I’m not the client.

Having that easy win under my belt makes it easier for me to come back to the bigger, more difficult projects refreshed and with more confidence. I’m more likely to finish my other work to get more of that feeling of accomplishment. It’s addictive.

Conclusion

Being demanding of yourself, wanting to do great work, and putting in the extra hours is not necessarily perfectionism, but that’s a judgement each of us has to make on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s a matter of saying “this just isn’t working” and throwing it in the trashcan. Sometimes it’s a matter of asking someone you trust if it’s ready. Don’t be afraid to do either of those.

So, don’t you feel better having finished reading this? I told you. Now, go make something!

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