To Make Better Creative Work, Aim for Acceptable, Not Perfect

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Image via: Quang Nguyen Vinh/Pexels

Perfection can be a complex, philosophical, topic. My current stance: There is such a thing as 100%. If you’re into films, you know Roger Ebert gave four stars to great movies. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was ranked by the Rolling Stone as the #1 album of the 2010s; just a few years after he told the world that album is proof he knew how to make perfect. The possibility of making perfection is out there.

Perhaps one of these perfect works might even be the reason we got into creative work in the first place. As a person making things, the vision of perfection is enticing and, sometimes, all-consuming. Whatever craft you’ve committed to, it’s your life’s work, so it makes sense to take it seriously.

While perfect work can be inspiring, it also sets unrealistic expectations  of the messy creative process. Poet W.H. Auden says it best, in his Introduction to Nineteenth-Century British Minor Poets, “The chances are that, in the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor.” If Auden were reviewing West today, as he did other poets later in his career, he might point to West’s contribution on the terrible I Love It, the pre-Charlie Heat version of Facts, or West’s decision to include so many skits (and New Workout Plan) on the otherwise flawless College Dropout.

For decades, UC-Davis distinguished professor of psychology Dean Keith Simonton has studied creative geniuses. He’s produced over 400 research items, and tens of thousands of citations.

Having studied hundreds of people’s creative output through history, he notes that most creative geniuses have plenty of misses for each breakthrough hit. As such, in his book The Genius Checklist, he suggests that putting all of your energy into a single item of work, and betting it’s going to be a hit, is a high risk strategy.

Rather than betting so heavily on a single piece of work, Simonton recommends making a lot of work that meets ”minimal standards, without optimizing all criteria for success.” Simonton uses the word “satisficing,” jargon borrowed from behavioral economics, which means each work just needs to be acceptable; not necessarily optimal (or “maximized”).

In other words, if you were making music, spreading your effort to make 20 good songs is better than putting all of your effort behind one. But, making 200 songs that meet no standards won’t have a high chance at making an impact either. (Otherwise, Matt Farley would’ve swept the Grammys for years!)

Why Acceptable can Lead to Perfect

In The Genius Checklist, Simonton disagrees with the saying, “Practice makes perfect,” but proposes the alternative; “Practice just allows you to stay competitive in a game of chance.” This type of chance might bear resemblance to what James H. Austin called the Kettering Principle in his book, Chase, Chance, and Creativity.

The quote attributed to automotive inventor Charles Kettering goes, “Keep on going and the chances are you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down.” The premise  is, as Austin suggests, that “unluck runs out if you keep stirring up things so that random elements can combine, by virtue of your and their inherent affinities.”

As mentioned earlier, putting out a large volume of work does not guarantee breakthrough genius work. One key step is to define what standards  you intend your work to meet; your criteria, or as Bill Walsh might call it, your Standards of Performance.

If you have no idea where to start, you’re in luck: successful people often share their criteria. For example, if you look into criteria for writing, Auden put out his criteria for major poets, Robert Caro shows some of his thought process in his book Working, and Mary Robinette provides feedback for editing articles. If you want to emulate Derek Sivers, he shows you how. Same with Paul Graham. You could also study any other writing you like, and learn how you can improve. The idea is to set your standards for quality, and then produce and release a lot of work that meets it.

Change the Goal from Perfect to Done

Before he founded Makerbot, Bre Pettis worked with his partner Kio Stark on the Cult of Done Manifesto, in which they praise completing work as “the engine of more.” There’s some academic evidence to support this observation; in this study of 30 students, published at School Psychology Quarterly, the authors observed that problem completion can be a reinforcing event, and improves perception of the assignment. In the realm of software, Linux creator Linus Torvalds released his team’s work often — even daily — to keep his developers motivated to continue working.

If your brain is wired to get motivation from completing tasks, satisficing can help optimize for personal energy, as Dilbert creator Scott Adams might put it. At the Harvard Business Review,  authors Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer observe that making even just a bit of progress is highly motivating.

The opposite of satisficing — “maximizing,” or aiming to create just one piece of perfect work — can produce the opposite effect, often draining our energy. While an inspiring goal, perfect comes with a heavy expectation; it can lead to procrastination, anxiety, and paralysis.

Even amongst the examples of perfect work that exist, there’s a degree of survivorship bias there. Only a few of the perfect works were premeditated; many others lucked into perfection, amidst a lot of misses. Let’s also keep in mind the millions of perfect ideas existing only in people’s minds, that will forever remain invisible to us.

People will Remember the Good Stuff

One final consolation is, people have a tendency to remember your best work. Even though Thomas Edison filed and won over a thousand patents, his legacy is built on just one.

In more recent memory, less than a decade before I wrote this piece, Donald Glover received a 1.6 for his commercial album debut, Camp, as Childish Gambino. That was just a few years before he would win over five Grammys, and become the polymath artist we know today.

Tina Fey, a mentor of Glover’s, writes about this in her memoir Bossypants, “Yes, you’re going to write some sketches that you love and are proud of forever—your golden nuggets. But you’re also going to write some real shit nuggets.”

It’s this attitude and approach to making both the shit, and the gold, that Simonton advocates as well. Perfection is not achieved necessarily through relentless tinkering and tweaking the same thing; rather, you can allow perfection to happen from time to time, as a result of constantly putting out work that meets your own standards.