A thousand details add up to one impression. – John McPhee
I have just finished John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. It has had a tough life with me already. Its cover is stained with tea, what seems like an entire mug’s worth.
It’s a book that makes you think, that makes you wonder just how long it takes to get every word just right. To construct sentences and paragraphs that just flow.
A long time, McPhee says. It takes as long as it takes. He’s been lucky, never been in a hurry. He’s been able to take his time.
Then again, a piece of writing is never perfect. That’s the irony, the secret that no one tells us. Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s literary icons, apparently said “No book is ever finished. It is abandoned.”
When we see something that seems perfect we forget to notice the word “seems”.
For example, think of Steve Jobs. We know of him as a perfectionist, someone who brought us the iPhone. But we shouldn’t forget that each phone that was released was a compromise. The best they could do but probably not as good as Steve wanted. Certainly not perfect.
When you start to see this concept of perfecting something versus abandoning it you start to see it everywhere.
Take any business process. Is it perfect? Or is it good enough?
Perfection takes too long, and costs too much, and probably can’t be achieved anyway.
Is that too defeatist? Or is it being realistic?
Facebook had signs on its walls saying “Move fast and break things” and writes that it wants to “ship early and ship twice as often.”
I learned recently that children that tend to do best at school are the ones that are not afraid of getting it wrong. They are willing to make mistakes, they aren’t scared of making mistakes, and so they learn more and learn faster.
The thing is to get somewhere, you have to get going. And it’s not a one-off thing either. You have to do something day after day.
Those little somethings add up. You might simply be working on what seem like disparate, disconnected dots.
But eventually, you can draw lines between them. Shapes emerge and an impression is made.
Impressions are about details.
That’s the thing with anything, a book, a process, a sale. The things that draw people in, that keep them interested, are the details.
And even with those, it’s best not to get too hung up on perfection.
Take the quote that starts this post, for example. McPhee has it in his book and attributes it to Cary Grant.
So, I started by writing that was so. But then, it felt like something that was worth checking and it’s easy to do that with the Internet.
Well, Cary Grant didn’t say that. It was close, but he talked about 500 details.
Enough of a difference to possibly make it a McPhee adaptation rather than a Grant quote.
So maybe even McPhee can get it wrong. Although it’s possible that he has a much better reference than a single search on the Internet.
The point is this. Whatever we do, whether it’s writing, or business or a profession, we agonise over getting it right.
And that’s a good thing. We don’t want to turn out rubbish.
But we also need to get comfortable at letting go.
Because, we don’t finish things.
We let go of them.