1 Rule and 2 Questions That Short-Circuit Your Perfectionism Because Even Steve Jobs Wasn’t Steve Jobs

7 min. read
June 21, 2024

My background in the arts and liberal arts fed my perfectionism. Soon enough I learned to poke and probe for errors in my thinking and work to avoid criticism and unwanted attention.

Want to see a bloodbath? Take a poorly conceived poem into a graduate-level workshop and ask for “feedback.” Soon, you’ll have sharks aplenty.

To be sure, fewer typos in the copy, fewer bugs in the code, or fewer dumb choices better serves our clients. usually. Fewer errors tracks with higher quality, usually. Higher quality means better results, usually.

Sometimes, not usually, we need to ship the thing faster because that’s what the client’s goals and specific situation demand: speed.

Speed is often what our businesses need from us, and that’s where we see good business development branch off from good creative work.

Good creative work has a bead on a certain standard or satisfying conclusion, and extra time spent can reduce the distance to that standard. A blog post lacked a strong hook and smooth transitions. An hour later, the writer has fixed those problems. The blog post now has the distinct hum of a clear, cogent piece of communication, and it’s more likely to drive a busines goal for the brand it belongs to.

But not all business goals can be served by putting another hour into a piece of creative work, can they?

Oh, the time we squander on incremental gains in quality on projects that don’t matter!

When I was writing Free Money, I wrote tens of thousands of words that ended up on the cutting room floor. “That’s just part of the process,” other writers say.

I agree that’s true. What’s more true is that editing is a hiding place. Editing can be shockingly short-sighted and wasteful. Why clean the windows of a building that will soon be torn down?

What my book needed for me was to do the harder, less comfortable and enjoyable work of defining the book’s container. While avoiding that work, I looked up citations and polished paragraphs I would later discard.

I knew I was avoiding the real work. I was bike shedding.

What our businesses need from us isn’t perfect, but messy imperfect action.

You can know if a new offer will land with clients, so why spend twice the time putting lipstick on a pig? Your first priority is learning if you’ve got a pig or a pegasus, and once you validate the core idea, you can fuss over cosmetics.

This is how the entrepreneur beats the artist every time. Artists believe beauty matters for its own sake, and it does, but in the arena of business, the most beautiful artifacts don’t win.

What wins is what people want, what they’ll eagerly pay for. This isn’t a vote for cold-blooded capitalism but an observation: You can spend days or weeks crafting a glittering masterpiece doomed to fail because no one but you wants it.

Is it art? Maybe, but if you were interested in more than another piece for your private museum, you’d would have been better off cycling through inelegant versions much faster and getting clear feedback from the market much faster.

This is why the early days of the internet were so exciting to entrepreneurs. They could split-test ideas faster and cheaper.

Which performs better, Headline A or Headline B? Let’s drive some traffic to the page and find out.

Which performs better, Hook A or Hook B? Let’s find out quickly.

Which performs better, Offer A or Offer B? Let’s find out.

What about Call to Action A versus B? Give me 5 days.

If an entrepreneur is running the show, you can put ugly, misshapen versions of a new business idea out into the world and figure out what to improve?

You don’t have to guess at what customers or clients want. You can find out by putting in the reps.

When they’ll give you their money based on the copywriting and offer, not your brand or reputation, then you’ve got a winning idea.

Most of the time, however, creative entrepreneurs let the “creative” overpower the “entrepreneur.” They keep believing perfectionism is a virtue, not a hindrance. They keep believing their taste matters more than their audience.

A singular artistic vision could one day make you a famous writer, painter, or filmmaker, but it won’t convince people to want what they don’t want.

There’s truth in what Steve Jobs said:

“Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!"’ People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

Apple also had a number of failed products, including these:

  • The Apple Macintosh Portable
  • The Apple Newton
  • Apple Pippin
  • Apple eMate
  • Round Mouse
  • The U2 iPod
  • The Power Mac G4 Cube
  • 20th Anniversary Macintosh
  • Macintosh TV
  • Lisa I
  • FireWire
  • iTunes Ping
  • eWorld
  • The Apple III

So it’s safe to say that Jobs and other Apple leaders didn’t always figure out what customers wanted before they did.

Later, when several successful advertising campaigns shifted brand perception and a series of successful products, including the iPod and iTunes, put the company on a new trajectory, we edit the company’s and Jobs’s track record.

He was a genius, and he still botched the mind and heart reading. He wasted billions in R&D and marketing in the process.

Sure, blue ocean opportunities exist, and certain entrepreneurs will make markets.

The surer bet is still finding out what people will gladly pay for, giving them that, and kicking perfectionism’s teeth in along the way.

As a recovering perfectionist myself, I’m not going to give the least helpful advice of all time: “Don’t be a perfectionist. Ship before you’re ready! Floss daily!”

That’s like saying to an anxious person, “Don’t worry.”

“Yeah, thanks, guy, why didn’t I think of that?!”

We know we need to take messy, imperfect actions, but we don’t just toggle off our perfectionism. It’s not that simple because some of us have spent yours building up beliefs and habits it.

We have to short-circuit perfectionism. Put on the ol’ rubber gloves and stick a screw driver in the toaster until we can create new muscle memory.

Thankfully, former Secretary of State Colin Powell has our back with his 40-70 Rule:

  • He used this mental model to guide decisions: P = 40 to 70.
  • P stands for the probability of success, and the basic idea is that you need a better than 40% chance of being right before you take action.
  • Delaying the decision until you have enough information to be more than 70% sure usually means you waited too long.

Powell made the following recommendation: “Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.”

The 40-70 Rule can grab your perfectionism by the chin, and say, “Hey, you! Perfect is the enemy of done. I’m taking you out of the game.”

So when you’re trying a new idea for your business, you ask yourself this question: “Am I 50% sure that it’s good enough to launch?”

My wife once explained with characteristic wisdom to her husband that 50% good enough by his standards was much higher for other people with lower standards. My 50% Good Enough is less yucky and more ready than I think.

This question provides another way to apply the 40-70 Rule:

“Would I give this a C- (or, 70%)?”

If so, launch it.

A C+ would mean you waited too long, and the time and effort put into incremental gains in quality will likely be wasted.

Why “likely”?

Because like Steve Jobs our guesses about what people want will often be wrong. We need to validate or invalidate those ideas. Despite the mythology we’ve built around him, even Steve Jobs wasn’t Steve Jobs.

We can’t really keep improving the thing until we get feedback from real people, instead of listening to dubious recommendations from Patty Perfectionism, Esq. Perfectionism doesn’t pay.

The best approach is to drop the perfectionism label altogether and shoot for a D to C- average on the Readiness to Launch grading scale.

That way, you launch, get feedback, iterate, make meaningful improvements, and arrive at a winning idea sooner.

When you catch yourself about to nitpick, ask yourself if it’s 50% Good Enough and ship it. This has been transformative for one of my coaching clients, Anna Funk.

Try it. If it doesn’t work for you, ask me for a refund.

When you’re ready, here are ways I can help you:

  1. Free Money. A pricing and money mindset guide for freelance creatives. If you’re unsure about your freelance pricing, this is the book for you.
  2. Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make  6 figures as a freelancer.
  3. Custom Business Roadmap. Gain clarity, confidence, and momentum in your freelance or consulting business.
  4. Business Redesign. Raise your effective hourly rate, delegate with confidence, and free up 40 hours a month.
  5. Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info

Austin L Church portrait photo.

About the Author,
Austin L. Church

Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (Closeup.fm), a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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