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It ain’t over till it’s over: why perfectionism can be your worst enemy
Appetite for (self) destruction
There’s a thin line between attention to detail and perfectionism, and if you fall on the wrong side of it you can suffer creative paralysis. Just ask Dr Dre, whose Detox album is currently running six years late while he continues to tinker, or the novelist Erica Jong, who admitted that she “went for years without finishing anything… I had pieces that were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out”, or Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose, whose Chinese Democracy took what the New York Times described as “17 years, more than $13 million and a battalion of musicians, producers and advisers to deliver [the] Titanic of rock albums”.
Chinese Democracy is an extreme example, of course, but the NYT’s description nails the problem of perfectionism. “If Guns N’ Roses had released ‘Chinese Democracy’ in 2000, it would still have been an event, but it might also have been treated as the transitional album in a band’s continuing career. By holding it back and tinkering with it for so long, Mr Rose has pressured himself to make it epochal”.
It’s interesting to compare Chinese Democracy to the work of The Beatles. Rose’s record is technically perfect, but it took almost twice as long as The Beatles’ entire recording career. While Rose chased perfection, The Beatles released records complete with bum notes, extraneous noise and production errors – and while Rose released one album, The Beatles released twelve, along with thirteen EPs and twenty-two singles.
Beatles records weren’t perfect, but they didn’t need to be: good enough is often good enough. By all means do the best work you possibly can, but if you’re constantly burning the midnight oil over details nobody but you will ever notice then perhaps it’s time to stop.