Don't be precious

Aug 5, 2021



A few months ago, I couldn’t create anything, no matter how hard I tried. I’d sit on projects for days and not get anywhere and then give up and try something else, only for the exact same pattern to repeat itself.

Eventually, I realised that the issue was that I was being too precious with my work. But I figured it connected to not just making things, but a way of conducting myself in general.

Creating things

So here’s how it used to go. Before making anything, I’d come up with an elaborate game plan. I’d philosophise and agonize over every small detail. But I’d also constantly question if it was ready yet. And so, I’d keep tweaking and philosophising and ideating. I kept thinking that I would reach a level I was okay with tomorrow (and the funny thing with tomorrow is- it never really arrives, does it? We’re always stuck with a perpetual today).

And if I did manage to ship something, I was set up for disappointment. Because being a perfectionist also meant hoping for a perfect response, and obviously no response to a project can live up to that.

And then what? Every ship would be accompanied with an inevitable cascade of, wait- that’s it? Why am I even doing this? And naturally, I’d enter a mini crisis of faith, when I should have just been moving on to making the next thing.

The issue

The problem was that I was being way too precious with each piece of work I was putting out. Every single time I’d make something, I’d have a preset notion of the standard it had to live up to. Videos had to be edited with funky animations and tons of fancy cuts in Premiere Pro. Software projects needed to have authentication and a social layer and sharing and user profiles. Blog posts had to be these extremely grand, fleshed out versions of ideas.

Of course, that caused issues. I haven’t created enough to make something magical on each try. I mean, trying to be Jordan when I can barely make a hoop is probably going to lead to frustration.

But why, then, be so obsessed with creating to such high standards? Strangely enough, I think overly high standards are just an excuse for fear and work avoidance. It’s hard to ship something out to the world. People could hate it. Even worse, people might not care about it at all. And if people do like it, they might give feedback. Which means improving it. Which means a lot more work.

Applying overly high standards means not facing the shitty reality that something you create might be disappointing. In a way, if you stay in fantasyland without shipping, nothing you create can ever have a bad response (can’t have a good one either but hey, you know us humans, we focus on avoiding the negatives). And the way to stay in fantasy land is to avoid creating for any concrete audience and just piddle away at tweaking it for one you invent in your head.

The fix

If the issue is overly high standards, the solution is to take things way less seriously.

A story that changed my life is an anecdote from Derek Sivers. When he lived by the beach, he used to cycle this 15-mile path at full speed, maximum effort, 100%.

Every time, no matter how hard he tried, he’d take 43 minutes. Soon enough, he started dreading the rides. I mean, who wouldn’t, each time he’d give it his all and see no improvement.

And so, one day, he decided to take it chill, say, at 50% effort. And this time he got to soak the scenery in. This time, he got to enjoy it, instead of huffing and puffing all the way. He actually looked around. He saw dolphins. And his timing at the end? 45 minutes. All that extra effort he was putting in previously only shaved off 2 minutes from his timing.

So you can take it almost 50% more chill and still achieve 90%+ of the results, except this way, you can enjoy what you’re doing too. And at that point, you’ll have half of your energy reserves left to go do even more things, instead of being completely exhausted.

Make shitty things

I’d even argue that a good strategy when starting out is to make shitty things on purpose.

There was this one time I had an English essay due in 24 hours, and I hadn’t even completed a first draft. I just couldn’t get myself to start writing, it felt so unnecessary and useless. But the clock kept ticking, and in a last ditch effort, I decided to take it extremely not seriously.

In an act of rebellion, I started writing the shittiest, most cliche essay I could possibly conceive of. But now, all of a sudden, the paragraphs flew onto the page. About 10 minutes in, I realised that I did have a lot of good ideas I wanted to talk about. After a quick course correct, the essay became my best performing one that semester. Starting out by ditching my arbitrary ‘high’ standards that were blocking me allowed me to actually put words on a page and tweak it into something pretty good from there.

See, when you start out, you’re bad at judging what’s shitty, so ‘shitty’ probably isn’t even that bad. And making more things allows you to improve way more than fixating on one thing ever will.

So it’s useless focusing on any single piece of work. In sports, this is obvious. You don’t spend hours prepping and getting ready for a single jumpshot. You put in 100s of reps to perfect it over time. It’s always the body of work that is important, and the only way to get a body of work that reaches your standards is lowering your standards for yourself at the beginning. I mean, if you don’t do lots of things, you won’t get better at them.

The pattern is clear- we fool ourselves into thinking we’re running away from imperfection while chasing perfection, when in reality, we’re trying to avoid work and giving into our fears. The solution is always to lean into imperfection and work.

Being precious in life

I don’t think this stops at creating things. We’re all at fault for being too precious about our lives.

I remember when I created a grand, 5-step plan to ask out my first girlfriend. Obviously, I never got around to it because the situation would never follow my plan. In the end, I never really did ask her out, she’s the one who asked me out of the blue. I was being overly precious about my plan.

There were times in high school I’d reminisce about the ‘good old days’ before 8th grade where everything was hunky dory and chill. Except, I still have excerpts from diaries from then, and pre 8th grade Sarv definitely did not think everything was hunky dory and chill. I was over romanticizing the past, making it too precious. To avoid working on improving the imperfect present, I would invent an overly perfect (but fictional) past.

Similarly, if you don’t focus on working on your present, and obsessing over how it was great in the past, you’ll never improve your situation. You haven’t, and can’t, ever nail one point in time. You need to work on creating a good succession of them.

So if you stop being precious with stuff you’re making, and just make a lot of ‘shitty’ stuff, you’ll improve a lot. If you stop being precious with the ‘good old days’ and just work on improving the present, your situation will be a lot better. If you stop being precious with arbitrary plans you make and just go out and do it, you’ll probably get a lot more done.

Taking things less seriously seems like it would lead to worse outcomes, but instead, it frees us from dumb, arbitrary measures we invent for ourselves. And now that our standards are lowered, we have space to just do more, which lets us improve faster in the end.