The Paralysis Of Perfection

Always Be Shipping

November 13, 2017

Allan Stevo

One of my favorite modern thinkers said to me the other day “We must not be paralyzed by the pursuit of a perfect plan.” This was not in regards to grandiose big government ideas, but rather in regards to relatively small tasks in life.

Life can be conquered in increments. “Step by step” is a popular way to remind oneself of how important it is to be patient and to go through big tasks, one patient step at a time or “Krok za krokom,” to use a Slovak-ism of the same phrase. “Rome wasn’t built in a day” – the great city on seven hills, the great civilization that formed there was not built in a day, but over many years.

We often overestimate how much we can accomplish in a day, we often underestimate how much we can accomplish in a year. Many people therefore structure their days with too much energy geared toward the short term and their year becomes an accumulation of exactly that – lots of short term activities, somewhat more disconnected than they need be, somewhat more disconnected than how a long term view would serve that individual. A very successful year can be broken into 300 or so mission critical tasks followed through on daily.. Many small projects, projects finished daily, add up to big results when properly stacked one after another.

A few weeks ago, speaking to a successful software engineer who has come to lead a sizeable team of engineers, I was told “I like to ship every few hours if possible, and every few days at the least.” That means he and his team are constantly finishing up small tasks and releasing them. Small tasks in software can be rough to release because they might not fit with the rest of the software as well as a gigantic global solution to software the way that a total updated version or a version built from the ground up might. His attitude though is to constantly be releasing something. That attitude is an important one. “Always be closing,” said Alec Baldwin’s character in “Glengarry, Glen Ross.” This is a useful dictum in the business world, but is also a useful concept in life – what are you work on finishing right now?

Ernest Hemingway shares a similar perspective when he wrote about fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and the craft of writing: “Scott took LITERATURE so solemnly. He never understood that it was just writing as well as you can and finishing what you start.” Being an eager starter is one half of ambition. It is only one half though. Being an eager finisher is the other half. Hemingway boils writing down to doing your best and simply finishing what you start. How vital that second part is, otherwise life for the inspired ends up filled with “piles” of thousands of unfinished essays and projects, rather than a step by step smooth transition from one mission critical task to the next. A life in which one mission critical daily task leads so seamless both in hindsight and in foresight to a large and impressive goal. These piles are signs of failed accomplishments, but for some they are also a type of baggage, littering life with their incompleteness and limiting the ease with which the next project can be started and finished.

A series of dictums that has become popular in the contemporary creative culture – “The Cult of Done Manifesto” – conveys a similar concept to Hemingway: get it done and out, if getting it perfect is your goal then keep coming back later to revise, but make it happen and make it happen now. It even goes so far as to say anything requiring more than a week of time is not worth your attention. “Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.”

Of course it doesn’t mean that anything that takes more than a week is not worth your attention – careers, children, life – but it is accurate in that it references projects that draw on endlessly as an issue of scope that are best chunked down into smaller pieces that last no more than a week. With a little practice, life can somewhat easily be broken down into mission critical tasks that offer a sense of both a new start and completion in a week or less.

Every week, one can take a task and see to it that it is done. Even better one can take one single mission critical task for the day points out Tim Ferriss and work on that one single task with lightning focus and to be sure that task gets done. You can do many things that day if you wish, but accomplishing that one critical task is paramount for the day. Get it done and your day is a success, don’t get that mission critical task done and your day is a failure. Something must be the most important thing on your to do list and have the highest priority.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld uttered the most excellent words I’ve ever heard come out of his mouth when he pointed out a few years ago in New York City “If you have seventeen priorities, you don’t have any priorities.” What is the one thing you care about accomplishing today more than any other? Can you do that single thing today and go to bed feeling accomplished just because it got done? What is that one thing you must get done this week? Can you do that one thing this week and reach a restful spot in the weekend breathing a little more deeply because it is done? Can you do those things, even more significantly, as a step in the direction of larger life goals?

Once that small chunk is done, accomplished, you have all the more momentum to move on to the next small chunk right away or the next day. Great goals suddenly don’t look like long fatigued slogs across a barren wasteland in pursuit of a distant goal. Those great goals look instead like all of life’s other great journeys – perhaps through places like Seoul or New York or Bogota or travels around the world where in your travels, you are given a treasure every time you step outside. Every day can be a journey. Just like in traveling, the end of the day can be reflected on from the comfort of a soft pillow and seen to have a beginning (not knowing), a middle (action), and an end (completion). And the more comfortable you get with that process of traveling in life and treating your life as daily, adventurous travels toward an intentional, distant destination, the more comfortable you get in starting and most importantly – completing. Every day.

A college professor of mine talked about a friend who spent ten years on a book that everyone in his life knew he was working on and no one ever saw. For ten years he worked constantly on it. It was his first book and he aimed to make it a masterpiece, to unveil nothing but an absolute piece of perfection. At the end of ten long years, his finished product was unveiled and it was horrible. Even he ultimately felt so. He didn’t chunk his time right, he spent ten years in the joy of the activity rather than getting what he wanted done. Spending time in the joy of an activity is also a worthy task, such a hobbyist view of an activity just shouldn’t be confused with getting something done. It is instead leisure time, akin to channel surfing for hours rather than watching a complete film, or clicking every link you see on Wikipedia for an entire day and reading a little rather than finishing any one article or better yet, a thoroughly researched book on a single topic written by a capable thinker with his name and reputation attached to the work.

I am all for long pursuits in life. I am not for long pursuits that are not properly chunked down into small pieces that allow the participants to feel weekly, and ideally, daily victories. You have some beautiful long pursuits I imagine. Within those pursuits, I wonder how you can chunk it down, so that today you feel a great sense of accomplishment, perhaps even a few hours from now, a sense of accomplishment toward a goal, perhaps a vital goal to you, one of your most important dreams, that at the moment feels months or years away. What can you ship this week? What can you ship today? What will you ship today?

I shipped this piece of writing.

And now it’s time to move on to the next mission critical task.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

Photo credit: Home Care Assistance, Linfield College, Go Abroad

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