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87. I really don’t get why you don’t think you can do it well enough? Are you that bad at judging your own skill level?

It never ceases to amaze me.

I’ll do some project and I’ll ask some people to contribute.

  • Some will say yes. Of those, some will actually end up contributing, and some will end up not. That’s well and good and just as it should be.
  • Some will say no, because they don’t think it’s worth their time. They might dislike the idea, or they might just not be interested for any number of reasons. That’s fine. I say no to stuff all the time.
  • Some will say no, because they don’t have the necessary skill/knowledge, even though I thought they did. My bad. It’s a pretty fair answer to say “You thought I have a driver’s license, but I don’t, so I’m not a good driver for your project.” or stuff like that.
  • Some will say no, because they can’t find the time or energy required. Understandable. Even things that won’t take more than a few minutes are sometimes more than we can manage. I’m no stranger to that.
  • Some will say no for other reasons. Some are easily to fathom, while others are somewhat … odd … (at least to me). Still, all good.

Then, there’s the category of people that I simply do not understand.

The ones who are worried that they can’t do it well enough with the time they have available. On the surface, this seems like a perfectly legit reason. People want to deliver their best, right? They want to live up to standards. They want to do it right. They don’t want to be — Cthulhu forbid — sloppy.

Except that in most cases, this isn’t how it is.

Reality is that if I asked two people to sing the Beatles song, “Yesterday” on half an hour’s notice, it’s quite reasonable if they tell me “Claus, I can’t do that on the spot. I need to practice.”

Except, of course, if one of them is Sir Paul McCartney.

Paul McCartney could probably whip up a world-class performance of “Yesterday” in his sleep. With half an hour’s notice, I’m quite sure he would blow it out of the park. I may be wrong. Sir Paul and I don’t hang that often. If I am wrong, I hope he’ll forgive me for misrepresenting him.

But for the sake of the argument, bear with me.

Now, what does this talk of a British music legend have to do with my friends and their contributions to my projects?

Well, to be honest, in our shared field, some of my friends are Paul McCartney. Or at least close enough to it, that it doesn’t matter.

So am I, for that matter.

Tell me that I have to explain what live action role play is, and I’ll be able to do it drunk, tired and with zero warning AND STILL DO A GOOD JOB. Give me a latex sword and ten random 10 year olds armed to the teeth, and I’ll beat them up even on a bad day. Ten years ago, it would have been twenty. These are things that I’m damn good at, and though I try to be reasonably humble about that, if I pretended it wasn’t true, I’d just be lying to myself.

Do these people — my awesome friends who know their shit — really doubt their own skill level that much? Are they being misguidedly humble? Don’t they know that even at their worst and using basically zero effort, they are still messiahs?

Or is it something else? Is it that the fear of performing below their own standards — not being all you can be — is so great that they fear that they will be judged for not living up to their potential? Do they believe that someone will see their speech or read their text and say “Well, yes, it’s admittedly very good, but I expected more from her. It would have been better if she hadn’t written this.”?

Is this what’s at stake? Is it the tired old horse that says that it’s better to have 10+10 creative output than 10+10+10+10+8+8+8+9+10+9, because the first has a straight 10 average, and the other “only” has a 9.2? Is that what it’s about?

I honestly don’t get it, and though I’ve experienced it many times before, this latest apple fell so close to the tree that I am flabbergasted. To me, it seems like some bizarre quest for only delivering perfection EVEN IF IT MEANS DELIVERING MUCH, MUCH LESS OF IT.

How have we created this ideal that it’s better to create two “10” (movies/paintings/novels/poems/photos/etc) than it is to create five tens along with three eights and two nines? How does that even make any sense? Especially when we all acknowledge the fact, that no one starts out great, and that before you even get to good, you have to go through an amount of “suck”, a solid amount of “meh” and finally some measure of “promising”?

And if we don’t have this ideal, why is it so often used as an argument? Why is striving for perfection an acceptable excuse for not delivering pretty fucking great?

I know that when I ask my friends directly, they don’t answer the question in this way. Of course not! I’m questioning some of their basic tenets of what it means to be competent. How could they say “Yeah, Claus, you’re right.”?

Except that some of them do. Some of them deny and fight and struggle and resist, until they one day come and say:

“You know what? Maybe it doesn’t have to be perfect. Maybe I can put my name on it even though it wasn’t my best piece of work. It was more than good enough, even though it could have been better. And that thing you say about how it can ALWAYS be better? I get that now.”

But most of them never end up there. They talk about “quality over quantity” (like a lack of quantity was a quality in its own), “doing it properly”, “not rushing through it” and things like that. As if the only thing that matters is time put into something. As if the thousands and thousands of hours poured into growing the requisite skill doesn’t count for anything, if a “reasonable” amount of time isn’t spent now as well.

I have lied to people about how long it’s taken me to produce a piece of work. Not because I like lying so much that I feel a need to do it even for ridiculous reasons. No, because I KNEW that if I said “I spent six months on this” I’d get applause, while if I said “I spent two weeks on this” I’d get huffs and puffs and snarky comments. FOR THE SAME PIECE OF WORK.

Now in the middle of all this ranting, I realise that people are people, and people are different. I realise that just because it takes someone an hour to write a good piece of text, it might take a lot longer than that hour to find the zen state necessary to let the words flow. That’s fair.

What I don’t get is this desire to link together things that aren’t necessarily linked, just because they often are, and insisting that the link is there.

It reminds me of back in 2003, when we were planning the Knudepunkt larp conference in Copenhagen. We were considering hiring a band for the Saturday night party, and someone suggested that we go jazz. Now, not long before, I’d been at a university party and had heard an amazing jazz band. I’d even talked to them afterwards, so I knew what they cost to get there.

“Jazz. Great! I may have a band for us, then.”

“Cool, Claus. How expensive are they?”

“3.000 kr.”

“Then, they can’t be any good.”

That exchange took place. Literally that exchange.

Not: “Wow, that’s surprisingly cheap. At that price you usually don’t get quality bands. Do you know why they’re so cheap, if they’re good?”

Not: “That’s very cheap. You’re not exactly a jazz expert, Claus, so maybe you think they’re good, and in reality they’re not. Maybe a second opinion might be smart? No offence meant.”

Not: “Ok, that is unusual. But if you say that’s the price, then they can’t be in it for the money. Let’s check with them WHY they’re so cheap before we hire them.”

There were any number of arguments that could have been made for why this seems-too-good-to-be-true-deal was suspect. None of them were made.

Instead, the guy in question just said “Then, they can’t be any good.”

If I’d have said “15.000 kr” instead, would that have magically made them better? What the flying *€”#? What kind of a way to think is that?

I understand that there’s often a link between price and quality. But that’s not a universal truth, and this angered me no end. True to form, the guy was completely unrepentant. In his world view, it made perfect sense.

I don’t know if there’s some of that at stake here. That if you use an hour writing a text you’d prefer to use ten hours on, it somehow can’t be good? Remember that we’re not talking “better” here. I’m pretty sure that if it got ten hours of work, it would be better. Probably, at least. But that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be more than good enough after just 60 minutes.

The project I’m working on and am referring to, is doing just fine. Others stepped in and delivered. The perfectionists still have time to join in, if they want to. That would be awesome. If they don’t want to, that’s also ok. I’m quite ok with people saying no thanks. It’s when they give reasons that I feel are self-deceiving rationales I get this weird curiosity going.

Maybe one day I’ll understand. Maybe the prism will shift, and I’ll say “Ah! Now I get it. Thanks for explaining it to me this way.”

Until that day comes — if it ever does— I’ll just have to shake my head in a mixture of annoyance, disbelief and laughter and say “Sure, if that’s how you feel, I don’t want to pressure you.” when someone says that the reason they won’t contribute is because they can’t do it well enough.

Even if I feel that is complete and utter absurdity.

But why do I care? Couldn’t I just leave well enough alone?

Sure, I could. I usually do. But this time I thought I’d write about the phenomenon. Maybe it’ll strike a nerve with someone. I’m pretty sure it’ll get some of my friends mad at me — probably simultaneously saying that I’m wrong and feeling very personally attacked because they recognise themselves in this.

I could be wrong, of course.

It may be that people read it and say “Claus, you should have gone to bed earlier. This makes no sense to anyone. It’s not even an 8, but just a 3. That brings your average even further down. Next time, consider polishing a piece a bit before releasing it. You know, do it properly for once.”

There’s also the chance that someone will read this and be inspired. I guess there’s only one way to find out, right? I mean, I’ve been working on this text for at least a week, so it’s ready now, right?

Yeah, I couldn’t resist ending on a mildly sarcastic note.

I’m sometimes like that.

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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