Medical residents push through long hours to become doctors. Athletes “leave it all on the field” to be the best. And artists? Artists labor over their work, striving for creative solutions. This striving, or angst, often compels the process. How can we take control of something so deeply personal as artistic inspiration, and tame it for the sake of a profitable business?
Medical residents push through extraordinary long hours to become doctors. Athletes “leave it all on the field” pushing themselves to exhaustion to be the best. And artists? Artist’s labor over their work, reaching, striving, searching for creative solutions. This striving, or angst, often compels the process.
And while there may be some degree of necessity in this artistic striving, there is always a danger of falling down the rabbit hole, losing all sense of time, or reasonable limits to our efforts as we strive to satisfy our creative ambitions. And if we allow ourselves to get lost in creative Wonderland, the heartless Queen of Hearts, also known as the real world, is going to take off our heads.
How can we take control of something so deeply personal, so primal as artistic inspiration, and tame it into something that can be used in a professional context, and result in a profitable business?
Gaining the upper hand over your angst is going to involve two basic disciplines. First is simply self-awareness of how angst may be driving us, and simply resolve to keep it in check. But knowing there’s a danger is not the same thing as avoiding it in the first place. And so the other element in controlling your angst is to observe it in one of its other manifestations—the drive for perfection.
You may have heard the expression that great is the enemy of good. Well it’s also true that perfect is the mortal enemy of great. I’m not going to tell you that you need to settle for average quality in your work. There is just no way a creative can settle for okay work. You should strive for greatness, but in measure. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re rarely content even with great—we want our work to be perfect. We want to make sure we’ve explored every option, evaluated every angle, tweaked every element until they resound in perfect harmony.
But consider the cost of allowing our angst, expressed in perfectionism, to be our standard.
A true audiophile can hear and appreciate the difference between high-end speakers and truly elite systems. But that final 5% of audio fidelity between great and amazing comes at an extraordinary premium. Closing that gap between very good, and perfect from 95-100% quality, is profoundly costly.
Imagine if there were a design quality detector that could alert you when you’d arrived at 95% quality. And let’s suppose it took you forty hours to get there. Would you be willing to stop working at 95%? What if getting to 100% would take a disproportionate amount of effort, say twenty or thirty more hours? And only you and perhaps a small number of elite designers would ever perceive and appreciate the difference?
When we think about it from a business perspective of course we need to stop at 95%. But when creatives enter into that zone, striving for perfection, when your mind is full of so many more possibilities—you keep going, just a little further, trying out just one more idea. How many hours I wonder have you spent satisfying the inner perfectionist, at the cost of your own profitability and exhaustion?
Closing the gap between great work—and work that meets our own high standards of perfection is costly. It’s never demanded by the client —it’s our own striving that drives there. And it’s never really satisfied.
So far in exploring creative motivation we’ve learned about the dangers of artistic identity and angst with respect to motivation. But we still have one more factor to consider. And then I’ll offer a better ground for motivation. So stick with me, and until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.