Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Finished or perfect?

"It's better for something to be finished than perfect" - discuss!

I don't know about you, but to me this sounds like the title of an A-Level English exam question, something which (ironically) is best to be both finished AND perfect when the invigilator signals for pens to be put down and essays handed in!

And as I've been thinking about this statement, I've questioned whether being finished and being perfect are mutually exclusive. Like the exam example above, there are certain things that we want to be both finished and perfect! But does everything have to be perfect? And what is perfect anyway?

As someone with perfectionist tendencies, I've noticed an unfortunate side effect in myself and in others over the years. Sometimes, maybe even quite often, wanting to make something perfect can mean that same thing never gets finished.. it remains incomplete. This inevitably leads to frustration!

When we moved to the West Midlands a few years ago, we bought a house "in need of some work". In fact it needed an awful lot of work. It had no carpets, no central heating, half a kitchen, single glazing, terrible colours, dodgy electrics, gardens waist high with overgrowth.. and it had been unoccupied for six months. It was so bad that even the estate agent tried to put us off (about the only time ever that an estate agent was anything less than effusive about a property). It was, however, pretty good value for money, and we do like a challenge!

But (and it's a big but), in order to make it habitable, in order to make it a home, it needed lots of work and quick. For a perfectionist like me (especially in the area of DIY and making things), I needed to take a deep breath and recognise that it was more important to redecorate the house and get it finished (so we could move in) than do everything absolutely perfectly. And so we did.. we got it finished (enough) rather than perfect.

Over the last few years I've been thinking a lot about creativity. After I'd been working at the same company for a decade it dawned on me that I'd put many of my creative passions, ambitions and desires on hold - subconsciously waiting for the perfect time to undertake them.

Of course, we know that there's never a perfect time to do anything - and waiting for this elusive serendipitous moment can lead to a kind of paralysis, a "rabbit in the headlights" effect, just like when we try to make things overly perfect and end up not making anything at all.

With many things in our culture we can become obsessed with "destination" and miss out on the day to day journey. Too often our head can be immersed in what might or might not happen in the future and we can miss out on the importance and engagement with our day to day life.

Perhaps especially in the area of creativity, the sense of honing our craft means that we need to go through creative cycles - and finishing is an important (if not the most important) part of the creative cycle.

Discussing songwriting with a friend many years ago, he confessed that he'd started lots of songs but had never been able to finish one, as effectively it had never been perfect enough for him, which is a real shame. I feel fortunate that as a teenager, a wise musician friend taught me about the discipline of completing songs. I remember sitting in his lounge talking around his piano, as he told me how important it was to come up with a complete song "even if there's only one part of the song you really like". This nugget of advice has been very freeing over the years, although not always easy to apply!

Another unfortunate side effect of being a perfectionist can be impatience - especially with ourselves. We can set ourselves ridiculously high standards and then expect to be perfect at something from the start.

A few months ago I bought myself an accordion from eBay (my learner theme manifesting again.. I do love to learn new instruments!). After the shock had subsided of submitting a far higher bid than I intended (£1100 instead of £11.00), but subsequently having won the auction for a mere £12.50 (thank goodness I was "sniping" and no-one had time to bid me up to my maximum!) I collected my new instrument from the vendor and brought it home.

It needed some repair, a few new keys and key tops for example, which I was happily and successfully able to do myself in my workshop. Having repaired it, I set about playing it. Now this is a "daddy" accordion.. a massive 1930s vintage Hohner 120 bass.. which means it's fully chromatic and can be played in any key. I can play a bit of piano, and I understand chords, so in my (perfectionist) mind I expected myself to be able to pick my accordion up and dazzle straight off! As usual, the reality didn't quite match my aspiration and it's been a bit harder to learn than I hoped - for one thing you can't see your left hand at all, and there are 120 identical buttons to navigate by feel alone!

My point in saying this is that it's easy to get impatient with ourselves when things don't work out perfectly straight away. For creative types it's ok to allow ourselves to create imperfect things - often its more important for us to finish something than for it to be perfect. Knowing you can do things better next time round doesn't mean you're a failure. It's important to aim high, it's really important to do the best we can, but that doesn't mean we should beat ourselves up in the meantime (although we so often do). Some things genuinely take time.. 10,000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell (and if you've never read Malcolm Gladwell please go to the library now and borrow every single book of his they have, especially Outliers and Tipping Point).

My dad is a hero of mine. He is a master craftsman, and we think in very similar ways, especially in our approach to making things. I wish I could make things as well as my dad but I can't - not yet at least! You see he's got many many years more experience than I, and it would be foolish of me to expect to be as brilliant as he is without going through all the hard work, mistakes and sheer elbow grease he's put in to his craft. Of course I can learn from him, but I have to allow myself to be "imperfect" in the meantime. So I have to force myself to finish my many making projects in the workshop EVEN THOUGH THEY'RE NOT PERFECT, because I need to learn the art of finishing them off, varnishing etc. And every time I am improving, learning from mistakes and getting better.

There's an old adage that many of us will be familiar with, that you can't turn a stationary ship - you need it to be moving. And of course some ships have larger turning circles than others.. so too in our lives some things take longer than others. And maybe creativity is something that has a large turning circle.

One of the important things I'm continuing to learn is that it's healthier for me to enjoy the creative journey I'm on than to be overly focussed on the destination of being "perfect" at it. Accepting that I can make things better, but that the imperfect things I have made are the foundations on which the perfect things will be built.

In Stephen Covey's influential "7 Habits of Highly Effective People", the last habit is to "sharpen the saw".. to go through to process again, but better. This is one of the reasons why the art of finishing is so important, as it gives us the opportunity to start afresh and to apply the learning we gained on the last creation to the next one.

In New Caledonia there is a particularly bright species of crow. We know that all corvids (crows, rooks, ravens, magpies etc) are extremely clever, but this particular sub-species displays a remarkable characteristic previously only observed in humans. You see, they make simple tools - but more astoundingly, each generation has managed to communicate this knowledge to the next who have not only applied it, they have refined it! This is called the ratchet effect, and it's another fascinating perspective on the art of honing our creative skills - the more we go through the cycle, the more we can refine our tools, and the better we become. This is one of the reasons I'm blogging to the same title as my blog buddies each week - to sharpen the saw and improve my writing.

So is it better for something to be finished than perfect? Well yes and no, but the art of finishing is an important skill for us all to develop on our path to perfecting our craft.

(This post was written as part of the Blog Buddies group, to see what the other group members had to say on the same title have a read of  Nicola's post. If you want to join our blog buddies group contact

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