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Perfectionism as Practice: Steve Jobs and the Art of Getting Good

The Perfectionism of Steve Jobs

While designing the original Macintosh, Steve Jobs became frustrated with the title bars. As Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in a recent essay on industrial innovation:

“[Jobs] forced the developers to do another version, and then another, about twenty iterations in all, insisting on one tiny tweak after another, and when the developers protested…he shouted, ‘Can you imagine looking at that every day? It’s not just a little thing. It’s something we have to do right.'”

Gladwell told this story to emphasize a truth about Jobs that many found frustrating: “He needed things to be perfect.”

A Different Type of Practice

Like many in the advice community, the death of Steve Jobs drove me to a period of morbid, posthumous anthropology, seeking some insight into what made this icon who he was. In this scavenging, it was the tales of perfectionism — emphasized by many different commentators — that caught my attention.

Jobs’ quest for perfection made him “complicated and exhausting,” but it also made him and his team really good at what they did.

On reflection, this makes sense. When we declare something to be “good enough,” we are declaring that we have reached the limits of our comfort zone. A “good enough” outcome, in this respect, is a snapshot of our current ability level. Pushing something beyond this point crosses a threshold into an ambiguous and uncomfortable territory, where we need skills we don’t yet have and which might be difficult to acquire and apply.

This is a territory most of us avoid.

People in the orbit of Steve Jobs could not.

And they became the best technologists in the world.

Defusing the Dangerous Allure of Perfect

We have now entered a precarious situation. Perfectionism, I’m arguing, can be a powerful technique for injecting deliberate practice into your working life, as the quest for perfection forces you to strain and develop new abilities in a way that you would otherwise naturally avoid. Because of this, it provides a nice case study of our deliberate practice hypothesis in action.

But perfectionism is also dangerous. It’s the source of workaholism and the bane of elite college students. It drove Harvard’s happiness guru, Tal Ben-Shahar, to write a book with the subtitle, How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life.

To harness this technique, therefore, requires nuance.

Controlled Perfectionism

In my own work as a professor, I’ve been trying to figure out this balancing act. My current solution is to draw a line between what I call controlled perfectionism and pathological perfectionism. 

The latter type of perfectionism, which equates any shortcoming to a devastating personal failure, is what Ben-Shahar attacks. I have no interest in this pathology.

The controlled variant, by contrast, exists only within the boundaries I provide. I take an important project and set aside a well-defined interval in which I relentlessly tweak, optimize, and improve. Sometimes I choose this interval to be the weeks leading up to a deadline, and sometimes I choose a period earlier in a project cycle, when, for example,  I’m still building up a set of new mathematical results that will provide the foundation for papers to follow.

The important part of my process — the part that separates this obsessiveness with the pathological variety — is that when my interval is done, I stop. Inevitably, I’m still well short of an ideal output, but what matters to me is not this specific outcome, but instead the striving for perfection and the deliberate practice this generates.

In other words, I want to keep getting better, not necessarily make this particular project the best thing ever.

Whether this balance is the right one remains to be seen, as this experiment in my working life is still new and evolving. It does, however, underscore both the complexity and the potential power of integrating deliberate practice into the world of knowledge work.

(Image by tsevis)


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

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24 thoughts on “Perfectionism as Practice: Steve Jobs and the Art of Getting Good”

  1. As much as I hate Steve Jobs as a person, I really sought out one of his traits — (controlled)Perfectionism.
    Also, one thing I really admired Bill Gates for is how he has completely moved on from Microsoft to solely focus on his Gates Foundation.

    So its about a balance between both of those. 🙂
    Great post as always!

    P.S I absolutely do not like to engage in the whole Apple vs Microsoft politics.

  2. I’m really enjoying this series. It is giving me a defined framework on which to hang vocation and avocation goals/preparation. My history is of planning w/last minute execution. I need to execute along the way at work and in dog rescue while striving for that subtle perfect balance of knowledge, wisdom and application. Thank you.

  3. I agree completely: making each project the best you can is a stepping stone to improving your skills. It seems that a lot of people take perfectionism to an extreme form, though, and don’t focus on matters most, i.e. making their folders for a presentation pretty versus worrying about making the content of a presentation solid.

  4. Remember… the reason Steve and his buddies made such great stuff is because THEY WANTED TO USE THIS STUFF. They wanted to own an MP3 player that was really small, easy to use, and slick. Plug it into your computer, and the iTunes logo bounces; the computer and device start talking to each other, and within seconds, you’re synced up and automatically charging.

    Steve Jobs famously derided Focus Groups. Again, that doesnt work if you don’t care about the products, or don’t plan on using the products.

    You even notice why Microsoft make the best Software Development tools in the world, but almost everything else they make is clunky/bloated/mediocre (relatively speaking of course)? Obviously it’s because MS is a company CHOCK FULL of coders. Imagine the care they take when designing every little icon, process, and UI element. When it comes to designing the next version of Office, what do they use? Analytics. They just hand over the entire design process to statistical analysis (eg. analyzing which buttons get clicked the most, where the eyeballs go, etc).

    Another point about Steve’s perfectionism: famously he rehearsed his presentations/keynotes hundreds of times, well beyond what any of his colleagues would have thought was ‘good enough’. The result is a guy who most in the media believed to be a ‘natural’ public speaker, even emitting some kind of Reality Distortion Field, with his hypnotic sales ability. Mesmerizing though they were, there was nothing natural about it. If you’re willing to care as much as he did, if you’re willing to work like that, you too can give Steve Jobs-like performances.

    *Note: You can’t be faking this stuff. Steve bounced around early in his ‘career’ and certainly wouldn’t have made a model for Cal Newports, “How to Ace Reed College”… Steve struggled not to Graduate, but to find what was his true calling. Once he found it, the ‘caring’ part was easy. If you’re a lawyer and you’re not that into it, you might find it hard giving powerful and impactful ‘presentations’ to the Jury. You can’t fake this stuff.

  5. As a coder, I resent the implication that coders don’t care about user interfaces or design. It is management and moneymen who are obsessed with focus groups, marketing surveys, analytics and the like.

  6. Very useful outlook on perfectionism. When I hear the “P” word, I always cringe because, in my mind, it’s synonymous with paralysis. My work is design and art — fields in which perfectionism can keep you from finishing anything.

    However, it’s so important to give yourself structured opportunities to push your abilities into uncharted territory. So I like the parameters you suggest. Picking a few, well-defined targets for perfectionism within a given project makes a lot of sense. Looking forward to trying it out!

  7. I have a bit of a problem with choosing Steve Jobs as this example.

    He might have been a perfectionist, but what skill was he practicing in his pursuit of perfection? Managing? Maybe…

    Point is, he made OTHER people put in the work to achieve his “perfect” outcome.

  8. I think what you describe is a concept close to timebocing, when applied to practice. For software developers, it’s common to set aside a period of time of a few half-hours to solve a practice problem (called code kata in this context).

  9. “ As a coder, I resent the implication that coders don’t care about user interfaces or design. It is management and moneymen who are obsessed with focus groups, marketing surveys, analytics and the like.”

    Well, my point was that coders are going to care more about designing the next version of VisualBasic or Silverlight dev tools, than say, Windows Movie Maker. That kind of bias is undeniable, right? You’re exactly right, the guys who line up the focus groups/analytics and run the project based on them are the problem. Couldn’t agree more.

    Recently there was some noise about MS’s latest UI Ribbon being designed based on eye tracking analytics (here’s an older interview: Nothing wrong with quantitative data at all. I’m sure you’ll agree that to hand over your design to such ‘tests’ would yield pretty horrible design. That’s all.

  10. Recently I got the chance to read a similar book titled “The Perfectionist’s Handbook” by PhD Jeff Szymanski. He describes two roads for perfectionism: healthy perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism. I woulds recommend you to take a look at this interesting book as it shows and suggests some strategies to avoid falling into the unhealthy state. Check it out at:

  11. Cal, the point you make really resonates with me. I’ve often found myself travelling down the “pathological perfectionism” path and it has been tremendously frustrating. I struggle to stay within the boundaries I provide. I get wrapped up in rather unimportant details and find that I can’t move forward until they’ve been worked out, even when I’m aware that time is winding down. It feels like a psychological barrier that prevents me from continuing on. In the end, I work slowly, and it becomes difficult to meet deadlines and finish things on time. When I have had sufficient time to work out the details, my work usually meets high standards. I’d love some tips on how to break some of these barriers down and be in control of my perfectionism.

  12. I am a 54 year, old diabetic who used to play chess casually till 2 years ago when I took to serious chess.Deliberate practice has helped even me to improve my game significantly and get a FIDE rating on the 3rd attempt. I have even written articles on how to improve at chess.
    I fully agree that attempt at perfectionism by repetition till you get it completely is at the very core the very core to make rapid progress in chess.But it requires persistence and so great passion to play and more significantly to improve each day.
    There are some coaches who recommend going through hundreds of instructive games to absorb patterns.While this a useful method to study chess games I feel that in order to get beyond the intermediate level you have to understand and memorize all variations of certain games completely . Important endgame positions also have to be understood precisely and completely.This is International Master Rashid Ziatdinov’s method recommended in his remarkably unusual chess book ‘GM-RAM’ .

  13. Evidence shows that perfectionists succeed IN SPITE OF their mental illness as opposed to benefiting from it. So Steve Jobs did not actually benefit from his perfectionism and neither does anybody else, including technologists!

    That’s the major error I see in this article. It’s dangerous because it posits that perfectionism can have desirable results and this is just absolutely not true.

    You have to start from the beginning and acknowledge that NO form of perfectionism is desirable and is in fact harmful. From there, you can make your other points. You DO NOT make distinctions between pathological and controlled perfectionism because there’s no benefit from any kind of perfectionism to start with!!!!

    So anyway, those aremy c oncerns. Thanks.

  14. I’ve had some perfectionism in my life.

    I’ve found I can’t cope with it on my own. I can’t seem to set limits when I do my own projects. I inevitably get caught on small details and because I cannot solve the timely I lose confidence and shame myself until I quit.

    I got through school and did well only because others were setting the limits that I could not set myself.

    Something to think about.

  15. You know when you said : I’ve been trying to figure out this balancing act. My current solution is to draw a line between what I call controlled perfectionism and pathological perfectionism.

    Well in fact Tal Ben Sahar did make that nuance too and it,s the difference between reaching for perfectionism versus reaching for excellence. Perfectionism is related to the pathologic behavior, it,s an unhealthy approach to life and success and in fact it,s proven that people with that mindset are less productive and effective, because they are afraid of failure, since they want everything perfect.

    On the other side people who focus on excellence are more concerned with the will to always improve. So they are less fearful of mistakes and failures. They know it,s part of the learning process so they do learn more and get better and more so than the perfectionists. So that nuance that you have described is spot on and very important. It,s a crucial nuance to get because it,s the nuance that makes the difference in your hapiness levels AND in your capacity to improve and be productive.

    So I suggest that you use the word excellence instead of controlled perfectionism because the term in itself set us on the right mindset.

    Also I read your article : Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre. And I was a bit shocked by this titled since positive psychology also praise the state of flow. And that titled got me thinking if maybe hapiness and high performance could be opposed in some way. But I the same time when you talk about those who are the elite you explain are in fact they are more relaxed, they sleep well, they give themselves time for leisure and so on. So I wonder if hapiness and high performance are opposed or on the contrary goes togeter hands in hands.

    Also as I understood the concept of flow in positive psychology it is when you meet a challenge that match your skills, competance, that you feel you are up to the challenge and that is also the perfect zone of arrousal. The challenge is not too easy (not in the comfort zone), it,s challenging, but also not too hard (there you enter the panic zone and your not productive, your panicking).

    So to me I understand it as the optimal zone and that puts you into flow. And it sounds a lot like being in deliberate practice too, but I,m not sure. I do know that in positive psychology they do research about Grit and that deliberate practice is related but I wonder if delebirate practice is being in a higher level of difficulty than being in flow or if it,s the same thing. Maybe flow is describing the state we are in and deliberate practice describing the technique to get in that state. I,m not sure.

    But I also think that the term flow is used for many different meanings by people. Some of them expressing flow as doing something without efforts. Anyway, one thing is sure is that you got me thinking about important nuances with these concepts that maybe I dont fully understand yet and I will surely push my research about it furthur. I found your texts very interesting. P.s Sorry for my mistakes in this text, I,m not fluent in english.


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