Stress less about perfection

The book Art and Fear has a powerful parable about obsessing over perfection:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Getting stuck in the “quality” trap probably sounds familiar; it definitely does to me. It is easier on the ego to focus on ideals, rather than risking “failure” or a version that has visible flaws. This trap most often shows up in my work life if I let it, but the most troubling scenario is when I am picking tools. It is easier to stress over which library to use, or whether to deploy on Amazon or Google, etc than it is to plow ahead and fail a few times trying out the various possibilities. (No one likes to explain to a coworker or boss “I spent most of today failing with {these tools}, and have not much to show for it.”)

But as the ceramics story makes clear, the locally-safe strategy is not the globally-best one. Getting the amateurish copies out of your system, and not chastising yourself for their quality, is a more effective way to get to quality than wrestling with quality is. If you want to more effective, just try things out until you find the thing you like! I was not maximally effective for big chunks of my life because I focused on flaws in the planning systems I saw, rather than getting the bad versions out of my system until I found something that fit. Experiment, make mistakes, learn from them, and move on to a better way; it is the most reliable route, even if it seems scary!