Why I’m not a perfectionist

By Bertie Stephens on January 28th, 2013

I think of myself as a perfectionist. Actually, I always like to think I would be one – that’s probably more accurate. There’s wonderful grandeur about the word.

Being a perfectionist provides one with a delightful aura when it comes to press relations, too. When a journalist writes about someone, the over-eccentric nature of their attention to detail is always something that is prized highly. It’s a wonderful story if someone takes the longest time to depict the smallest detail.

But why bother? Because, these days, I’m not actually sure you can afford to be a perfectionist. I mean, sure, it works – it’s necessary – for architects. But for start-ups?

You’re not an artist. Your work isn’t your work. Paint a picture and it is your statement to the world. Your charisma and values will shine through the artwork. Build a website or an app and your first user will own you.

I wasn’t a great film director. The relation to this statement and the words above is that I was a good film producer. I realised this at the age of 19 when I self-funded my first sixteenth-century period drama. This is relevant, I swear.

I was the director and producer, spending my own cash on a movie. I wasn’t going to give those two prized credits to anyone else. Especially not at that age.

But each day after shooting it was clear where my priorities lay. I was not interested in reviewing the rushes to make sure the interactions between the two leads were perfect. I was very interested in ticking off a shot list to make sure we had completed everything, and calculating the correct way to squeeze missed scenes into an already tight schedule the next day.

Because getting things done made much more financial sense to me than a smile gone awry from the protagonist in scene 27.

If you place the two scenarios side by side, no viewer will realise they have missed something if it never appeared, I thought. But they will be confused if a scene is missing. A scene sets out a narrative and continues the journey – the missed attention to detail simply improves it.

To understand this better, watch the bonus content on your stash of dust-gathering DVDs. Love Actually, for instance – watch the deleted scenes and you’ll discover new story lines and character plots you’d never have guessed existed. But did you miss them? No, because you never knew they were there in the first place.

And did you care? No.

It would be easy for someone to critique me for this outcome-driven view of cinema. You’re more than welcome to. Simply look at the 1.5 out of 5 star ratings for Roanoke: The Lost Colony on IMDB and take them in. Here’s one of the “most helpful” reviews:

There is nothing to recommend this. I am a History teacher and was hoping that there might be something useable in this film – for teaching unit of Roanoke.

Not only does the story really miss all the best parts of the story, the film-making is totally amateur. No scenes are lit properly. The script breaks the cardinal rule of ‘show – don’t tell’. The actors can’t be blamed entirely as the material is so poor.

What did we learn here? Well, we learned I’m not a natural director. We also learned that maybe a sixteenth-century film is a tad ambitious on the budget we had. I learned a lot more too, but I understand this isn’t a film review column.

Now, what if I had spent more time making the film perfect to correct all the feedback above? Well, we would have run out of money, I would have never finished the movie, I would have never toured America with it, and – here we creep back to the point – never launched my first start-up from it.

In truth, if we had made the film perfect I would have wasted thousands of pounds and probably wouldn’t have raised millions for future projects.

I dropped directing. The next movie I produced won an award, the one after that could attract a named cast. (I then launched a start up in e-commerce…)

People always misunderstand me when I try and express these thoughts. They take it to think I don’t care or have no pride over my work. That’s rubbish. I love productivity, and I’ve learned fast that my idea of perfect isn’t everyone’s. I envy Nike for their strapline.

I was actually told “you have no pride” by someone I had to let go midway through last year. He told me I would never be Steve Jobs by acting the way I did. At that moment, it turned out for some reason I was quite happy about that. I don’t know why. Like all of us, there is great respect there.

The easiest conclusion to take from this is that I could have just regurgitated the “release early” line, which is a very common phrase in the start-up world. But that’s only half of what I’ve learned.

Releasing early is not the key. The key is “release without perfection”.

Finally, just to re-iterate, if you’re an architect inviting me to the grand opening of your newest design – please confirm you haven’t followed any of my thoughts here. I don’t want to die. Thank you.