Twice in the past week friends have mentioned the idea of avoiding “the trap of trying to make things perfect.” It makes sense in a way: perfection is an unattainable state—particularly for creative people. So, in order to avoid never completing anything, you should set appropriate intermediate objectives that lead in the direction of the goal.

My problem with the distribution of this advice is that people may not set high-enough standards for those intermediate objectives. If they don’t achieve perfection, anything short of that is a failure. As such, who cares about the quality of the final execution? It’s a common problem among my fellow Asians, particularly those of us who have immigrant parents: We didn’t grow up seeing the value of lofty iterations, we only knew the need to be perfect.

Skip this paragraph if you’re already familiar with the pain and intricacies of growing up as first generation Asian Americans. Still there? Crap. This is still painful to talk about at age 38. Anyway, we grew up with seemingly unattainable expectations laid on our shoulders. After all, we are the physical embodiment of the hopes and reasons for our parents to uproot their entire lives and swoop around the world. Their children better damned well be successful otherwise all of that heart ache leaving family and friends behind would be for naught. They gave up everything, so they expected to reap grand rewards. We were born with those expectations on our shoulders. If we mis-timed an C# on the piano—start over, you failed.

This is the antithesis of the creative process. Creativity—whether through design, code, dance or song—needs to be iterative. But to be successful you need to set very high but achievable standards along the way. Not everyone thought the iPhone was (or is) perfect. Certainly not Steve Jobs. But he set remarkably high interim standards.

Perfection is a vector. Executions are the points along the path. It’s a matter of calibrating the frequency of the executions and the magnitude of creativity along that path that will ultimately define your success.

 

 

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