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Thinking Differently about Perfectionism

Perfectionism (noun) — a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.

I find it peculiar that so many of the articles about Steve Jobs following his death have used the term “perfectionism” to describe one of his key traits, as if this were a bad thing. For example, “Perfectionism is the disease that plagued Jobs,” from a piece in The Atlantic Wire.

Really? I wonder what the more desirable “healthy” state might be? And what sort of slogans might these anti-perfectionists choose for their endeavors?

“A relentless pursuit of mediocrity.”

“About what you would expect, or a little bit less.”

“Not great, but good enough for the likes of you.”

Any modern computing device is a complex, integrated system based on millions of human design decisions, whose quality is based not just on the accumulation of all of those individual judgments, but also on the complex interplay between them. And in order to be anything other than very expensive failures, these products must be joyfully purchased and used by millions of consumers all over the globe.

Given all of this complexity and opportunities for error and poor design and business failure, would you really want to strive for something less than perfection? Granted, perfection can never be achieved, given the difficulty of the problems involved. But isn’t that all the more reason why we should be setting our sights at this level? If we start with the intent to achieve something less than perfection, and are content to accept work that is obviously less than perfect, then what sort of end results can we expect?

Commentators complain that Jobs even let this crazy perfectionism spill over outside the boundaries of his professional career and into his personal life. In the same Atlantic Wire piece, for example, the following story about the selection of a new washing machine is offered as proof of his derangement.

We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table.

Wow. What a nut job. Can you imagine? A guy who runs the most successful consumer products company on the planet, and he thinks it worth spending his evenings talking to his wife and kids about the design trade-offs of a washing machine before buying one. Sheesh! It’s only a washing machine! Why can’t he drink beer and watch football when he’s not working, like the rest of us?

Come off it. Let’s get real. What are the possible reasons for not being a perfectionist?

  1. You can’t tell which end is up anyway.

  2. You really don’t give a hoot.

  3. You’re much more interested in fitting in than in standing out.

  4. You consider your brain to be an organ only slightly less superfluous than your tonsils and your gall bladder.

I think I detect a certain degree of intellectual dishonesty in these criticisms of Jobs. I have read many of these articles carefully, and found no spelling errors, no grammatical gaffes. Could it be that these authors are themselves suffering from bouts of niggling perfectionism? Are these the sorts of people who might complain about spelling errors found in others’ work, even after coming home from a hard day at the office? In short, might we find well-worn copies of Eats, Shoots & Leaves at home in their closets?

In the same Atlantic Wire piece, another sign of Jobs’ “disease” is offered up as a quote from a Malcolm Gladwell piece, itself based on the new Isaacson biography:

He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10 P.M., that the piano needs to be repositioned.

Hold on here a minute. This is not like you or me checking in to the Holiday Inn. This is the CEO of Apple taking a no doubt very expensive suite, not just so he has a place to sleep, but to have a suitable setting where he can meet with members of the media to talk about Apple’s latest products, known for their elegant design. What is so unreasonable about his wanting to arrange the room to make a suitable visual impact on his influential guests? If we were writing about a concert pianist, and he discovered at 10 P.M. that the piano in his suite was out of tune, and he was going to play on that instrument in front of the press the next morning, would his complaint be viewed as a sign of dysfunction?

I think there are two truths here that say more about our culture than they do about Steve Jobs:

  1. We tend to evaluate “perfectionism” as a social trait rather than as a business value. As a social trait, of course, it can be annoying — even though, as a business value, it can be critical to an organization’s success.

  2. We tend to use “perfectionism” as a derogatory term when someone else cares more about certain values than we do, or than we think they ought to. If we’re the sort of person who is frequently unsure about spelling, for example, and let our word processing software correct our mistakes, then we will probably call our boss a perfectionist if he or she points out the spelling errors in our work. If we’re a software developer writing documentation for internal use, then this sort of sensitivity to spelling errors may be inappropriate. But if we’re writing copy for a marketing piece for our company’s new product, then such sensitivity to spelling errors is a business necessity.

The truth is that Steve Jobs had a refined design sense that made him sensitive to the slightest issues — things that the rest of us might not notice at first, things that we might not be able to quite put our fingers on, but things that ultimately, and in accumulation, would cause us to be less than satisfied with a product.

I, for one, am thankful for the perfectionism that pervades Apple every time I power up one of its products. I’m grateful for all the little touches, and all the grand design concepts, that reflect the seemingly infinite thoughtfulness and care that go into each of their works.

Perfectionism may be a demanding pursuit, but when it comes to getting the important things right, it sure beats all the alternatives that I’ve seen.

December 20, 2011

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