Image by watercolors08
Far above the streets of Paris, scattered across the rooftops, parapets and pinnacles of Notre Dame Cathedral, is a collection of monuments to perfectionism.
These are the gargoyles, sacred figures, finials and other sculpted details that constitute the icing on the cake of this magnificent building. If you take the rooftop tour of the cathedral, you can see some of them close-up, staring out over the city, lost in a centuries-old reverie. Even at that height, some of the sculptures are too far away to see properly – just blobs against the skyline, the fine detail imperceptible without a zoom lens.
But there were no rooftop tours when the cathedral was built. To the overwhelming majority of visitors, these sculptures were hidden from view. As far as the people on the ground were concerned, they might as well not have been there.
So why did the builders bother? Why not save themselves a bit of effort and money, and leave the rooftops blank, or ‘sketched in’ with a few crude sculptures in the most visible places, and keep the fine detail for where people could see it?
Because they were building the cathedral for the glory of God. No matter that the men and women of the world couldn’t see their work – He would see it. No efforts were too great, and nothing was too good for such a project.
Thinking about these sculptures reminded me of the 20th-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Apparently she would sometimes leave a poem pinned up above her desk for years – because there was still one word that wasn’t quite right.
The thing is, she could have published these poems easily. Magazine editors would have fallen over each other for the manuscript. Any ‘normal’ poet would have been more than satisfied to write a poem of this quality – and would would have been proud to send it to an editor.
But Bishop wasn’t a normal poet. It made no difference to her that no-one else would have noticed the word that didn’t ring true. She knew it wasn’t right – yet.
Many of those poems never made it into print during her lifetime. She didn’t receive the additional praise and awards they would have won her – not that she was short of either.
Eventually, they were published after her death, in a collection called Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (2006). When the book was published, I remember reading an anecdote told by one of her friends. When Bishop showed him one of her unpublished poems and left him alone with the manuscript for a few minutes, he copied it down in a frenzy, because he was (rightly) convinced that otherwise he would never see it again.
Considering the examples of Notre Dame and Elizabeth Bishop, it’s only natural to reflect on the quality of one’s own work.
Would we go to all that extra effort, if no-one else would ever notice? Wouldn’t we be tempted to ‘leave it at that’, take the praise and rewards, and move on to the next project?
And in a commercial environment, can we really afford to do otherwise?
When time is money and deadlines are tight, perfectionism can feel like a liability. If you spend too long improving something that no one will complain about, you risk wasting resources that are needed for the next urgent project. Voltaire spoke for many project managers when he said “The best is the enemy of the good”.
It’s tempting to conclude that perfectionism is all very well for the cathedral builders and poets of this world, but success in the creative economy doesn’t allow such luxuries.
Tempting – but here are a few examples that might give us pause for thought:
If your youthful creativity was fostered by thousands of happy hours searching for just the right Lego piece, you should experience a quickening of the heartbeat at the phrase ‘programmable robot Lego’. Lego’s Mindstorms range, launched in 1998, has thrilled its users so much that it has become the company’s all-time best-selling product, selling tens of thousands of premium-priced units a year, with no advertising.
According to a Fast Company feature, Mindstorms is as popular with adults as it is children, and its product innovation has been fueled by interaction and feedback from customers, who happily contribute their time, ideas and even air fares to Denmark, in exchange for a few Lego kits:
The one key difference between the four panelists and actual Lego staffers: a paycheck. For their participation, Hassenplug and his cohorts received a few Lego crane sets and Mindstorms NXT prototypes. They even paid their own airfares to Denmark. That was fine by Hassenplug. “Pretty much the comment from all four of us was ‘They’re going to talk to us about Legos, and they’re going to pay us with Legos?'” Hassenplug says. “‘They actually want our opinion?’ It doesn’t get much better than that.”
(‘Geeks In Toyland’ by Brendan I. Koerner)
If you’re a manufacturer whose customers are prepared to help you improve your product for free, it probably doesn’t get much beter than that either.
US readers may wish to look away now – I’ve seen a few blog posts envying those of us in countries where the music-streaming service Spotify is available. And rightly so. A few months ago, I was marvelling at the amount of new music I’d discovered via Last.fm when I saw a Tweet by Chris Garrett saying he’d hardly used Last.fm since trying out Spotify.
Intrigued, I asked Chris for an invitation – and discovered a mind-boggling selection of music, available to listen to, for free. As in, “I’d like to listen to a classic album by the Rolling Stones or Kraftwerk, or the latest release from Royksopp, selecting specific tracks, and playing them instantly, as many times as I like”.
Spotify doesn’t have everything I want to listen to. And you have to listen to the odd advert on the free version. It’s recommendation and social networking features aren’t a patch on Last.fm’s. Plus it’s not clear whether they have a business model that will support the service long-term, especially when the free version is so good people like me don’t see the need to upgrade. But it’s far closer to music-service perfection than I expected to see in 2009.
Using the information in the guide, you’ll earn at least 25,000 Frequent Flyer Miles, enough for one free plane ticket ($300+), within 90 days. If not, I am obligated to give you your money back—even if you love the guide.
Chris has also written recently on the difference between good and excellent.
Note that none of these people or companies are trying to be all things to all people – they picked one or two things that they considered important enough, and massively over-delivered on them. They are arguably trying to be ‘too good’ – but that’s what makes them remarkable. It’s what makes people like you and me read and write and talk and comment and retweet about them.
How Good Is Too Good?
How do you know when your work is good enough – or too good?
Do you apply different standards to different kinds of project?
If you had to pick one aspect of your work to massively over-deliver on – what would it be?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.