Perfectionism Keeps You From Being Safe

Our real safety is found in being prolific, not being a perfectionist.

“I will develop a more frequent habit of […] reminding myself that part of my definition of success includes a different definition of “safe” from that which I have been used to — the new “safe” is adaptable and agile and has 50 irons in the fire instead of only 4 piles in the ground.” — Ivan Fetch’s response to this episode of the Productive Flourishing podcast (via The New Safe | Fetch’s Phantasma).

This reminder really jumped out at me.

On first blush, it seems to go against “the start finishing” and “focus!” themes that I talk about a lot. At a deeper level, though, there’s no inconsistency — the focus is to start finishing the stuff that matters, rather than either just staying stuck in your head OR working on stuff that doesn’t matter.

But what popped up for me was actually that I was thinking that we need to add something to Ivan’s quote above that counters the natural urge for perfectionism. The fear that we’re not good enough leads to perfectionist habits — the belief being that if it’s perfect, we’re safe. But that actually keeps us from being safe, because our real safety is found in being prolific.

Why? Those who ship more and faster get the credit for the ideas. Of course, you know what I’m talking about, as you’ve no doubt felt the sting of seeing an idea you’ve been laboriously perfecting hit your network before you were ready because someone else had the courage or naivety to ship the rough gem of the idea.

At that point, it doesn’t really matter that you had the idea earlier or that your almost perfectly polished masterpiece is better. Isaac Newton was able to nearly stamp out Robert Hooke’s earlier explorations of gravity because Newton’s theory was more rigorous and complete, but that’s nigh impossible to do now.

But doesn’t a focus on prolificness decrease the quality of the work?” your perfectionist self just asked.

People often raise the charge that Seth and other advocates of fast shipping are encouraging people to produce poor or mediocre work rather than something of quality and depth. If we were to look merely at the ratio of high-quality works to poor-quality works, that may be true. But I think that’s taking a myopic view, because we also need to account for the amount of useful, new, interesting, or important ideas that we experience precisely because people aren’t sitting on their best work. So perhaps we do experience more mediocre work on an absolute level; it’s also true that we experience more great stuff that would never see the light of day if the perfectionists and arbiters of all things worth consuming got their way.

Now, it’s not necessarily true that you can’t be a perfectionist and prolific at the same time. You’ll just have to spend considerably more butt-in-seat time to actually be prolific, as well as building up a high tolerance for the aforementioned sting as someone gets as much or more love for the rough gem as your masterpiece. Another option: embrace that your creative process requires more time and that’s completely okay.

Perfectionism keeps you from being safe because it keeps you from being prolific.

That statement goes against the “if I make this perfect, I’m safe” sub-routine that we feel, but its being counter to that makes it no less true.

So, just a reminder: get it to good enough and share it. You can always improve it later, but if it matters, the people to whom it matters want and need it sooner rather than later.

Yes, the irony of me hem-hawing about the quality of the sound of my conversation with Seth and delaying publishing it for a year is not lost on me. Just because I had to climb out of that hole doesn’t mean that I can’t either keep you from falling into it or make your climb easier.

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Charlie Gilkey is an author, business advisor, and podcaster who teaches people how to start finishing what matters most. Click here to get more tools that’ll help you be a productive, flourishing co-creator of a better tomorrow.