I got a direct message from a listener a week or so ago that I’ve been thinking about ever since. He wrote to me to ask me if I had ever heard of a particular podcast — specifically, the podcast host, who he referred to as the “anti-Saddoris,” because “his production is sloppy , he curses a lot, and he doesn’t seem to care if he sounds out of his mind or at least a little stupid once in awhile.” Those of you who may be On Taking Pictures listeners know I have no problem sounding like an idiot — and fairly often — whether it’s singing an impromptu jingle for one of our sponsors, or the sometimes goofy exchanges Bill and I have to open the show. That said, I understand and appreciate what this listener meant but, just in case I was still a little foggy, he ended with: “I challenge you to release something less than perfect. I love Process Driven, it glows with production, but maybe more episodes and less perfection?” This last bit is what has stuck with me since I read it and I think is a terrific topic to tackle as part of a series of posts discussing some of the issues that we tend to struggle with as Makers of Things. The idea of Perfection as a goal, rather than simply an ideal is something I have regularly struggled with, to the point of becoming paralyzed by it. In the case of PD, I hit a wall, both creatively and technically, so many times with what I want the show to be — or rather what I think it should be — that I haven’t just done the work and allowed it to evolve into what it needs to be. Thinking about subjects, tone, inflection, mics, mixers, plugins, not to mention crossing every T and dotting every I, while trying to remember to press hard because it needs to go through three copies is exhausting. So I stop. I procrastinate. I make excuses. Ultimately, I don’t ship. Here’s the rub: I wasn’t always like this. I used to leap. Often. And I used to ship. Often. Then, somewhere along the way, I decided that my portfolio, my skills and experiences — my bag of tricks, if you will — was no longer good enough to allow me to land safely. So I stopped even trying, blaming perfection, instead telling myself that it — regardless of what “it” was — wasn’t good enough. Except that it was, and is, and will continue to be.
A quick aside: Consider a jazz musician like Miles Davis. Much of his body of work is based on improvisation, in not knowing exactly where he would end up. Instead, he simply trusted that the hours of practice and study (not to mention the musicians he played with) would lead him where he needed to go. Is every solo perfect? Absolutely not. But, without the missed notes, sloppy timing or just bad playing that night, we wouldn’t have Kind of Blue, which is considered by many to be the greatest jazz recording of all time. It all matters. It all counts.
I’ve always been a perfectionist when it came to my work, but over the past decade or so, I let what I do define who I am, or at least my own perception of it. When I was considering the move to DC, one of the deciding factors was that I use the shift in geography to inspire, or rather allow, a shift in thinking. I needed to let go of some of the false beliefs around my own abilities and the black hole of chasing perfection and simply give myself permission to be me. I needed to re-learn to leap.
Did you ever see Fight Club? There’s a great scene where Tyler describes Marla as “the little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it. But you can’t.” That’s perfection. It gnaws at us, taunts us, begs us to chase it. But, just like the cake, it’s a lie. When I was working in theater, we had a saying: “beat to fit, paint to match.” Did the thing look good from twenty feet? Because that’s where people were going to see it from, so it didn’t need to be perfect. That’s not to say that I or we didn’t want things to be good, or even great. Not in the least. In fact, some of the most talented, creative and dedicated people I’ve ever worked with I met working in theater. But at 8pm, the curtain was going up and whatever you’re working had better be done, perfect or not.
So what does it all mean? I think for me the short answer is in a piece of advice a very dear friend gave me years ago and while I’ve never forgotten it, I have for too long ignored it. While the context was around me picking up a brush and painting again after a fifteen year break, the point he was making applies just as well to a photographer or a writer or a baker. “Just do the work,” he told me. “Don’t worry about who may or may not like it or whether or not it ends up on some fucking museum wall. Just do the work.” Maybe it really is that simple. Don’t do the work to get rich. Don’t do the work to get famous. All of the stuff that happens after the work is, for the most part, out of your control anyway. And don’t get hung up on whether or not it’s perfect, because chances are, it’s not. But I’ll bet it looks great from twenty feet. All you and I can control is when we start, and when we ship. Let’s get to it.