In praise of not being perfect

perfectionism-kills-melbourne-copywriter-camilla-peffer

I was 24, and I’d just landed my first full-time job at an IT company. I hadn’t even finished university yet, a fact which I’d neglected to mention to my boss. That was me, the unabashed careerist, always aiming higher, and trying to be better than myself.

So there I was, attending daily stand-up meetings as a technical content writer, trying to master a dictionary of industry lingo. They were all POP this, B2B that, and I was still using YOLO in everyday conversations.

Eventually, I got the hang of their jargon. Many of these acronyms and abbreviations I’ve tossed out my mental window, but I’ve kept AGILE top-of-mind.

It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from working a la corporate, and I believe that its benefits span across all industries and practices.

As a freelance copywriter, I’m obsessive over the nuances of language. I like to wait to speak until I’m absolutely certain about what to say (or write), so it’s quite common that I’ll agonise over particular words, punctuation marks and formatting. And keywords! Don't get me started on SEO copywriting. I could analyse Moz and Google Analytics for days.

But the process of AGILE is a philosophy I’ve taken on board and incorporated into my copywriting services. It’s critical for making shit happen. There’s a time and place for getting things juuuuust right. But as is often the case online, there are times when done is better than perfect.

 

What is AGILE?

Type ‘AGILE’ into your computer’s dictionary app, and you’ll be presented with this:

AGILE

adjective

1 she was as AGILE as a monkey: nimble, lithe, supple, limber, acrobatic, fleet-footed, light-footed, light on one’s feet; literary fleet, lightsome. ANTONYMS clumsy, stiff.

The first time I read this, I envisioned a long, lithe ballet dancer. The kind who’s a brazen perfectionist, but knows how to adapt and move on from mistakes, or a pianist’s change in tone.

An AGILE method draws upon these themes of adaptiveness. But to be an AGILE freelance copywriter has far less to do with my ability to catch a falling pen that it has to do with my perfectionism.

 

Employing AGILE management is an iterative and incremental method of managing activities. The term was born from a team of software developers in 2001, who defined their core values as:

·    Individuals and interactions - communication is paramount and free-flowing between both client and company

·    Working methodologies – AGILE methods need a strategy and a framework that demonstrates development and opportunities for growth.

·    Client collaboration – AGILE methods needs to be aware of the conversations revolving around their brand and leverage them.

·    Responding to change – AGILE methods rely on quick responses to change with Internet search trends, social media and any outside forces that affect the delivery, and pivot quickly to address those changes.

It’s a philosophy that’s had a ripple-like effect, spanning across all industries and skill levels. Why? Because these software developers were the first to notice that the world was changing. Everything was about to get a whole lot faster, reactive and homogenised.

There was no use waiting around anymore. Globalisation meant that a story on Facebook could cause a consumer to buy one phone over another. Or reading on Style.com about a new fashion trend could see a girl from Geelong opting for fresh fashion finds online, rather than buying at her local boutique. We want things now. We can't wait for perfect.

 

Done is better than perfect

William Faulkner, American poet and Nobel prize laureate, once said:

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” 

It’s an inspiring sentiment that not only encourages us to aim higher, but to set our own personal benchmarks.

But being perfect is a productivity killer.

 

You might know what it’s like to be a perfectionist. Maybe you’re the kind who lets a sentence marinade until you’re ready to publish. Perhaps you know what it's like to feel irksome until all the granules of lunchtime have been swept into the dustbin. If you're like me, you can’t look at a cracked iPhone screen without wincing. I understand your plight, but you’re in a tight bind there, my friend.

“Perfectionism,” says writer Anne Lamott, “is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” 
 

Author and motivational speaker Brene Brown reiterates this in The Gifts of Imperfection:

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” 


If you own your own business, you’ll know that you’re your own worst critic. If you own your own business and you’re working other people too, you’ll be acquainted with stakeholder management and the art of keeping everyone happy. Not only do you have yourself to answer to, but a whole team of competing interests, too. The problem with copywriting, or marketing if we want to think more broadly, is that we have multiple cooks in the kitchen. Everyone has their own idea of perfect. Your designer will like one thing. Your developer might hate it. And your business partner might be scared to make a move until all preferences are aligned. And when we all try to be perfect, we wind up with an exercise in futility: we stall and obstruct the process, because we’re waiting for the holy grail to land in our laps.

While I was working as a technical writer for that IT company, I learned that time was a luxury I couldn’t afford. Time and perfectionism are Siamese twins, and the duel antagonists for productivity.

If someone from the product development team needed an email newsletter about their new domain locking service, I couldn’t sit and think for a week. Our competitors were already putting out TV ads. I had to adapt. I had to learn to learn to embrace ‘good enough’, ‘almost perfect’ and ‘done, for now’.

That’s not to say that I’ve learned to settle with second best. The perfectionist in me would prefer to do more research, to hold longer client consultations, and to wait 24-hours before sitting down to edit a first draft with a fresh set of eyes.

But the world does not wait long for perfectionists. The world wants to taste tomorrow yesterday. What was new one day ago is subject to a hyper-reactive news cycle. People change their minds, they move on, and they do it all without a moment’s notice.

This means that I have to move quickly too. Whether I’m writing website content, compiling a blog post or writing a feature article, I can’t play the perfectionist card. I have to learn to adapt, and being AGILE means the difference between a fairly good finished product, and one that the world will never even see because I was too slow to react, and too much of a princess.

 


Everyone is facing this battle. But success does not belong to those who try to control every aspect of the world around them; it belongs to those who can anticipate change and shifting demands, and adapt accordingly.