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Why Action Beats Perfection: The Power of Doing Over Perfecting

Why Action Beats Perfection: The Power of Doing Over Perfecting

In their book Fail Fast, Fail Often, Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz tell a story of a class of art students.

Half the class was informed that their grade at the end of the semester would be determined by the quality of their best piece of work. They could spend the whole semester refining just a single pot if they wanted to. If it was good enough, it would get them an A.

The other half of the class were told that their grade at the end of the semester would be determined by the quantity of work they produce. If they produce 50 pounds of pots they get an A, 40 pounds earns them a B, 30 pounds a C, and so on. 

The test was quality vs quantity.

Who do you think produced the best work, judged on technical and artistic sophistication?

We all want to say it was those focusing on quality, right? That’s what we’re usually taught: that quality beats quantity in life. The quality group had ample time to design, hone, and refine their creation to perfection so it’s a no brainer, right?

But it was the quantity group who produced the best work. 

How?

It’s counterintuitive. They were mass-producing pots. Surely there’s no creativity in that.

But here’s the thing: they weren’t mass producing the same pot. 

They were learning how to make pots. They made tons of mistakes along the way. But each attempt taught them how to do it better next time. They refined and refined their approach as they went along. They learned new techniques – how to shape the clay in new ways, how to mould it faster. They made a variety of different objects. They honed their skills and talents with each iteration. They messed up loads, but they got better and better. 

Quality evolved out of quantity.

Those in the quality group spent much, much longer on each pot. They refused to submit a creation until it was just right. Some worked on a single pot for the entire semester. They relied on skills they already had rather than developing new ones.

Isn’t this a story of life?

How many of us do this? How often do we hold back from putting our work out there until it’s just right? How often do we hold back from putting ourselves out there until we’re just right?

Just Do it

I can relate. A few years back, I spent months refining my first book. When I thought I’d finished, I kept finding new research or having new insights that I reckoned would make it better. I’d frequently delete an existing section to make space for the new bits. I did this repeatedly.

At first, I convinced myself that I was making the book better. I held back from publishing until it was ‘just right’. But when is ‘just right’? After about 6 months of iterations like this, the book was becoming quite different from the earlier version. 

Better? Maybe.

Or just different?

The truth is, I had been afraid to publish it. Afraid that it wasn’t good enough; that it wasn’t as good as the books I sifted through in the bookshops. Afraid that a sub-standard book would be the end of my career before it even began. Afraid that I’d be judged and that would be the end of my short writing career.

F*ck it! That’s what I said in my head.

I had an important insight then that’s stood me in good stead ever since: a version of the 80/20 rule.

I realised that I could go on doing this forever. I’d keep changing it and changing it, and in time I’d have edited it into a totally different book. Maybe it would keep getting better. But maybe any of its previous iterations would have been a good book.

So I decided to go for it. It was time to publish (I self published it). All these new pieces of research I was finding, all the new insights I was having, needn’t go in this book. They could go in my next, and the one after that. 

Rather than shaping one book into a shiny, ‘perfect’, book as I gradually became a better, more mature writer, I could write a range of books over the same time frame, just like those art students who made loads of pots. Each would reflect my new insights and interests. Several books rather than one book. 

So it went that I self-published it in 2005. Hay House publishers bought the rights to it about 6 months later and republished it the following year. They also agreed to publish the next book I was working on, the one that featured research and insights that, had I not published, would have gone in the first book that I’d still be editing.

Just getting it out there and starting on the next made me a better writer. It caused me to explore different styles and how to communicate better.

If I hadn’t decided to publish and get it out into the world as it was in 2005 but instead kept iterating it, I certainly wouldn’t have as many books published today. I now have twelve.

In fact, my 12th book (The Joy of Actually Giving a F*ck) comes out on 9th July 2024. It’s my most ambitious so far and certainly the most adventurous title I’ve ever chosen.

This attitude has helped me much over the years. You don’t need to make something perfect. Make it good, absolutely, whatever it is you’re creating. That’s a given. I don’t mean you should put a half-hearted attempt out there. Make it good, yes! But learn where to draw the line. Because what’s perfect anyway? Is there even such a thing?

I’ve learned that aiming for perfect is like a subconscious stalling tactic. We stall because we’re afraid of being judged. It’s takes courage to be vulnerable; to accept that you might be judged; to accept that people might not like you. Or that you might screw up.

But it’s in the doing that we learn and grow.

Endless iterations, like refining a single pot, deprive us of growth, expansion, and developing new skills.

Yes, we’ll make mistakes along the way. Who hasn’t? That’s part of life. A few of my books are no longer in print because they didn’t do so well. But I’ve learned from the way I wrote them. I can’t let the fear of low sales happening again stop me from writing more. Being afraid of failure only freezes us and stops us trying.

Whatever you’re doing in life, don’t hold back. Don’t deprive others of the wisdom you’ve gained or the skills and talents you’ve honed.

As Reid Tracy, the head of Hay House, once told me: “You don’t need to get it right, you just need to get it started.”

Because there is no ‘right’. 

There’s just what it is right now.

In the words of Christopher Robin, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Credit

David R. Hamilton PhD
After completing his PhD, David worked for 4 years in the pharmaceutical industry developing drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer. During this time he also served as an athletics coach and manager of one of the UK’s largest athletics clubs, leading them to three successive UK finals. Upon leaving the pharmaceutical industry, David co-founded the international relief charity Spirit Aid Foundation and served as a director for 2 years.

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