It ain’t over till it’s over: why perfectionism can be your worst enemy

26/05/2011 16:58pm

In one of Father Ted’s funniest episodes, Father Dougal spots a tiny dent in the bonnet of the Rover 213 they’re about to raffle to raise money. Ted grabs a hammer and says he’ll tap the dent away; much later, every panel of the car has been hammered into scrap.

That’s perfectionism for you.

If you’re working in a creative industry, you probably know the difficulty of knowing when to stop. George Lucas certainly does: the Star Wars director is still revisiting his 1977 blockbuster some 34 years after it first reached cinemas. We’ll leave it to you to decide whether he’s improving it with each new release or doing to the film what Father Ted did to that Rover.

When do you know a job’s finished? If you’re working to a detailed brief the answer’s simple – the job’s done when the client signs it off and pays your invoice – but not everybody works in that kind of environment. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that “finished” means “perfect”, and if you do you’ll drive yourself daft.

Perfect storms

Creative work isn’t like other kinds of work. If you’re building a house, making a widget or teaching somebody to drive, your work is done when the house is finished, the widget assembled and the driving test passed. With creative jobs, however, a job could potentially go on forever. Writers polish their prose again and again, musicians remix and remaster, photographers reshoot or retouch, designers focus on ever more subtle elements that the average viewer won’t ever see.

That’s fine if you’re working for yourself – although time spent on something nobody else will notice is of course time you could be spending pitching for, outlining or starting your next project, playing with the kids or writing that novel you’ve always wanted to write – but if you’re on somebody else’s dime it can be a recipe for disaster, even if you’re a genius. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Orson Welles’ perfectionism wasn’t appreciated when he was spending other people’s money: inevitably, he reached a point where “the financial stakes grew so high that no one was willing to gamble on his genius.”

As Welles’ biographer Simon Callow puts it: “Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive.” And unemployable. Perfectionism, budgets and deadlines make for unhappy bedfellows, especially in fields such as design: if you don’t set yourself goals and accept that the job’s done when every pre-agreed box has been ticked, you could go on tinkering forever.

Sometimes that means leaving a T un-crossed, an I un-dotted, a minor imperfection here or something you’re not one hundred percent happy about there – and that’s okay. As The Observer’s John Naughton points out, legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was “a great master of analogue photography”, but “by my reckoning in at least 10% the subjects are slightly out of focus… to say that Cartier-Bresson was a lesser artist because he couldn’t focus is a bit like saying the impressionists couldn’t paint.”