All right, I can’t believe I’m quoting the A-Team. But it’s true. Don’t you love it when your projects are spinning along just right? When your writing zen is on and you author the blog post of your life? When the marketing campaign you dreamed up lands ten times its projected leads? When your well-placed phone call makes the difference between keeping and losing the biggest client on your balance sheet?
Of course you do. I do too.
When you’re aiming at perfection and actually hitting the mark, work is bliss. As the poem says, God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world.
But there’s a problem in this land of sunshine and glory, and I’m sure you already know what it is.
People. And circumstances. And you. Yes, you, on the days you have a cold, or didn’t get enough sleep, or had way too many jalapeno poppers at dinner the night before, or whatever other circumstance you can imagine. Stuff you can’t predict will always get in the way, darn it. And things get messed up.
Note, mind you, by “messed up” I don’t mean that your project is a train wreck, or even a moderate failure. By messed up, I mean that it doesn’t match up to what your inner perfectionist says it should be.
I’ve lived in this place. It’s not fun.
For the longest time, when things at work didn’t go exactly the way I thought they should (nevermind what anyone else thought), I would feel like a huge loser, because I knew I could do better. I had a vision of the perfect result I should have achieved, and my evil inner perfectionist would whisper, “What makes you think you know anything?” or, “If you keep this up you’re gonna get fired.” Then, I would react in one of two ways:
1. Overwork it. If the project didn’t feel perfect the first time, I’d keep at it. Rewrite for the thirtieth time. Take it back to design again – and again. Set up another focus group. Hold another group of employee meetings. Better to deliver the best possible job than let go something that’s less than perfect.
2. Avoid it. If I was afraid I couldn’t do a perfect job, then I’d push the project down to the bottom of the to-do list until I had the experience/skills/talent/contacts to do better. Or I’d ignore it until the need for it went away and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Bad, baaad. The perfection paralysis became a never-ending, vicious cycle, with my self-esteem as the target. It took a very wise boss to jerk me out of it.
One afternoon a number of years ago, this boss called me into his office and asked to see the status of a marketing campaign I was working on. I told him I wasn’t happy with it, that there was still work to be done, that I wanted to tweak it for a couple more days.
He looked at my work, tossed it on his desk, and said, “Send it.”
“But wait,” I protested, “It’s not ready.”
“Oh yes it is,” he replied. “You’re at the Happy Line. Get it out the door.”
As I was leaving, he called after me, “Quit trying to make everything so perfect. Get to 80% of perfect and 99% of people will be happy with it. And you’ll get a heck of a lot more done. Take it to the Happy Line.“
His advice rocked my world. And I still live by it today. Because he’s right.
Sure, there are some professions (tax accounting is one of them) where 100% accuracy is required. But in marketing and customer service, the truth is that 80% of perfect is always, always better than 100% of unfinished.
By applying the Happy Line principle in my job, I’ve discovered:
1. I get more done – and more quickly – than I ever did before.
2. My creativity opens up and I have fresher ideas.
3. I stop playing it safe and try new things – and those things sometimes turn out to be my most innovative and groundbreaking work.
If you try this, what you do won’t be perfect. But your work will be finished (on time!) – and maybe even great. Probably even great.
Aim for the Happy Line and see how far it can take you.
At minimum, you won’t be driving yourself crazy anymore.