How can you develop quality ideas without letting unhealthy perfectionism paralyze your creative process?
The idea of “reaching your fullest potential” has always been a strong and personal value of mine.
We live in a world of impermanence — the world changes and evolves. If we’re not aiming to reach our fullest potential, it’ll be challenging to adapt.
And if we don’t overcome unhealthy perfectionism, we won’t be implementing and learning enough to adapt.
At the end of January 2021, I had just wrapped up a teaching cohort where I partnered with an instructional team to help college students learn digital marketing.
After finishing this cohort, I had more time on my hands to pursue what I’m passionate about — developing ideas and creating content.
I intended to break out of my current plateau and improve my content creation process.
For the whole month of February, I committed to spending 4 hours writing, researching, and developing ideas.
Initially, I planned to write an entire article each day. But as I began creating content, I realized it was an unrealistic objective. So I decided that regardless of the output, 4 hours of writing and researching was a win.
The first week of writing felt great. I was building momentum.
By day 12, I had published over 5,000 words, created 6 articles, and built a medium publication.
I was on a roll. It almost felt too good to be true.
Then week 3 started.
I spent several minutes staring at a blank screen…
To find some clarity, I went on outdoor walks and sought inspiration with the occasional 3rd cup of coffee.
As my creative output dwindled, I began feeling concerned and a bit insecure. “Maybe it was a fluke.”
The Dunning-Kruger Effect struck with full force! In retrospect, I’ve learned that this is a natural dip in progress whenever you start a new endeavor. There was a sort of “habit gravity” pulling me down and creating resistance.
And accompanying this dip in motivation was this unhealthy sense of perfectionism.
Grappling with a handful of ideas to pursue, I chose one to flesh out.
On Monday, I hit a roadblock within the first couple of hours.
Feeling uncomfortable staring at my screen, I began fleshing out a second content idea.
By Wednesday, I had three unfinished articles…
This is when my perfectionism mentality hit me hard.
“Which of these ideas are good enough? When should I publish them?”
On Thursday, I revisited that first content idea. And I realized that spending another day working on it would give me diminishing returns.
So I wrapped up some finishing thoughts. Then I just experimented and published it.
Ironically, I discovered that exploring the other two ideas simultaneously allowed my creativity to flow and help me finish that first piece of content.
Even though I only finished one piece of content during that 3rd week, I started to see the value in experimentation and exploring multiple ideas at once.
This inspired me to take a more playful approach to my content.
Slowly, I began pulling the layers of unhealthy perfectionism back.
As I began peeling back these layers, my biggest insight was that not all perfectionism is destructive. There are both healthy and unhealthy forms of it.
Healthy perfectionism upholds inner values of excellence and high-quality, and it utilizes experimentation to achieve this standard. This is what Peter Sims would call “Little Bets.”
Unhealthy perfectionism is driven by external factors, hoping that someone or something “out there” will validate their ideas. In other words, we can become overly attached to others’ opinions (or become outcome-dependent).
We can often fixate on the hope that people “out there” perceive our work as excellent and valuable. Or we value the desired result more than the process itself.
This suffocates the creative process.
At some point, it’s crucial to “ship out” an idea so that it has the opportunity to evolve into something better.
And this is why experimentation is essential.
During the first half of February, I was overthinking everything when I wanted my content to be perfect.
My head was in the clouds.
To quote Muhammad Yunus, Founder of Grameen Bank:
“When you hold the world in your palm and inspect it only from a bird’s-eye view, you tend to become arrogant — you do not realize that things get blurred when seen from an enormous distance.”
I was spending too much time theorizing and not enough time experimenting. This ability to descend to the ground level and experiment is what Yunus calls the “worm’s-eye view.”
When I chose to embrace the process of experimentation, I was able to overcome unhealthy perfectionism.
After publishing over 10,000 words in 28 days, I learned that experimenting frees you from unhealthy perfectionism and empowers you to move towards healthy perfectionism.
This supports you in developing the building blocks necessary for building your brand and discovering breakthrough ideas that you can monetize.
Experimenting Your Way To Success
From 2001 to 2009, the CEO of P&G A.G. Lafley wanted to create a more innovative company culture.
Before this, they had a challenging time experimenting.
P&G veteran Chris Thoen summed up the root of the problem, “When we interact with consumers, it needs to be totally done.”
I’ve found this to be the fundamental rationalization for unhealthy perfectionism. Everything needs to be perfect before someone can experience it.
One of the biggest problems with unhealthy perfectionism is that it holds you back from taking action.
With healthy perfectionism, you still maintain high standards… but you also value the experimentation process.
These experiments actually become the vehicle that drives you to the top of the mountain.
On the surface, unhealthy perfectionism seems helpful because you intend to create something high-quality. But this gets misinterpreted to mean, “It must be totally done before someone can experience it.”
There’s a big downside to this mentality.
When you avoid experimentation, you’re not taking intangible factors into account.
These are hidden factors that you can’t predict with perfect plans or strategies. They are problems that only surface after you’ve begun exploring the landscape, such as underlying customer perceptions and market dynamics.
These intangible factors explain why unhealthy perfectionism isn’t effective. Without experimentation, you’re essentially trying to create a perfect idea from scratch that can predict — with high accuracy —all these hidden factors.
Even the most talented futurist couldn’t do this with 100% accuracy.
So what’s the solution for overcoming unhealthy perfectionism?
Prototyping is a practical way of overcoming unhealthy perfectionism.
It helps you discover these intangible factors, find solutions, and move towards an effective outcome.
Chris Thoen shares the importance of prototypes…
The level of feedback you get is so much more valuable and impactful… The problem with showing something to consumers when it’s almost totally done, people don’t necessarily want to give negative feedback at that point because it looks like, “This company has spent a lot of money already getting it to this stage and now I’m going to tell them, ‘It sucks.’ ” On the other hand, if something hangs together with tape, and it’s clear that it’s an early prototype, the mindset of consumers often is, “These people still need some help, so let me tell you what I really think about it.”
After Lafley took over P&G as CEO and chairman, its market value increased by more than $100 billion.
Taking an experimental approach can be challenging. But it pays off.
When your audience experiences your “prototype content and ideas,” they’re more comfortable sharing their honest reaction.
Now. Even if you see the value in experimentation, we still have a big challenge.
How can you share “incomplete ideas” while still giving your audience a valuable experience?
Create A Win/Win: How To Collaborate With Your Audience
Much of our resistance to experimentation stems from our fear of people criticizing us for incomplete ideas and worrying that they will reflect poorly on us.
Remember, unhealthy perfectionism is driven by external factors (largely other people’s judgment and approval of us).
Just the other day, I was talking to a good friend of mine.
They bought a course from Michael Simmons called “Learning Ritual.” It’s a course on “learning how to learn.” They did this back when Simmons initially started it.
At the time of writing this article, Simmons is introducing the next version of that course, updating it with additional content, bonuses and value.
I was telling my friend about this new development, and they responded along the lines of…
“I remember joining that course when it initially came out. It’s pretty cool that I started with the beta version, and now it’s evolved into something bigger.”
When you frame your idea or piece of content as a prototype, the person consuming it understands that you’re still experimenting and developing it.
And if you can pre-frame the idea properly, your audience and consumers tend to enjoy the collaborative process (just like my friend who bought the initial version of “Learning Ritual”).
Any result that requires creativity is a process of ongoing prototyping.
And low-risk prototyping becomes a way of overcoming unhealthy perfectionism.
Get To Version 3.0 Fast: Build On Your Wins
If you’re creating content or trying to find innovative ideas, one of the keys is getting it out into the world as quickly as possible.
When you see a high-quality piece of content or a breakthrough idea, don’t be fooled… it went through multiple iterations and experiments before its final form.
It’s rare for an idea to come out perfect. And even if it was perceived as “perfect” at the time, odds are it was developed further with experimentation.
In Eben Pagan’s book Opportunity, one of the ideas he shares is the importance of getting to Version 3.0 as quickly as possible.
This is a useful model that helps you move through a process of experimental innovation.
You start at version 1.0. Then you experiment and iterate until you reach version 3.0.
This doesn’t mean that every idea makes it to the final version. This is actually an important consequence of this process…
If an idea isn’t being received well by the market, or if you don’t want to explore it long-term, this process helps you weed out sub-par ideas.
Here’s the overall process…
- Version 1.0 is all about having a “minimum viable product.” You could also see this as a “minimum viable idea.” It’s a prototype. In reality, there were probably smaller experiments before this point. But here, you start to see some potential with one of your ideas. You develop the prototype and get it in the hands of a few people (and learn from the feedback).
- Version 2.0 is what Eben Pagan describes as the first “real” version. At this point, you’ve identified some winning ideas from the earlier version, and you can begin iterating and developing those winning ideas. You’ve also learned from losing ideas.
- Version 3.0 is when you acquire the confidence and conviction to develop an idea into something truly great. This idea has gone through a rigorous experimental process, so you know that people care about it (and it can be successful long-term). If your idea makes it to this point, then you can decide if you’re committed to developing it to its fullest potential.
This process helps you do a few things…
- It helps you develop a breakthrough idea that your brand can monetize successfully.
- Since it’s experimental, you’re getting it into the hands of people… building an audience throughout the process.
Prototyping is a powerful way to overcome unhealthy perfectionism and move your idea to a high standard of excellence and quality.
- “Little Bets” by Peter Sims
- “Opportunity” by Eben Pagan
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