Progress Versus Perfection: What Steve Jobs Can Teach Us About Coping With Failure

It's more important to do good work over a long period of time than to seek perfection at one thing. Besides, if you fail, it's a great opportunity to learn.

I realize I am a little late to the party, but I have finally read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. His portrait is fascinating. Jobs was equal parts futurist, salesman, slave driver, narcissist, and perfectionist. And it is hard to argue with his success at creating products that fundamentally changed the way we live.

Of course, when we read biographies like this, we hope to draw lessons for how we should live our lives. Is there something in the life of Steve Jobs that holds a lesson for us that might help us to make a contribution to our own industry? I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question. I serve as the director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas. This program brings the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences together to train a new generation of leaders. Towering figures like Steve Jobs loom large in the eyes of our students.

Many of the lessons we might try to take away from Jobs’s successes are wrong. The one that frightens me most is his perfectionist streak. In products ranging from the Mac to the NeXT to the iPod, Jobs stayed focused on seemingly minor details trying to get them exactly right. Products had to look and feel beautiful. Even parts of products invisible to the consumer had to be beautifully designed. Jobs would routinely push back release dates until every aspect of the product met his standards.

And (with a few exceptions like NeXT), it clearly worked out well for him.

Generally speaking though, I think people are paralyzed by perfection. When I start working with new PhD students for the first time, one of the first pieces of advice I give them is that the best dissertation is a completed dissertation. That is, it is crucial for students to find projects that are manageable. Many PhD students never finish their dissertations, because they want their PhD thesis to be a masterpiece. But, careers are built up through the repeated development and refinement of ideas. If a dissertation is the best piece of work a student ever does, that is a shame, because it means they did not sustain a career. It is much more important to do good high-quality work over a long period of time than to seek perfection in any particular project.

The same is true in any endeavor. It is far more important to make steady progress on projects and to get things done than it is to guard against the possibility that any mistakes will be made. No product (not even the Macintosh computer) is perfect when it is first released. Instead, it has to be improved through successive versions and revisions.

Why do people value perfection over progress?

We have a toxic relationship with failure. From an early age, we are taught in school that mistakes are bad. Mistakes on papers and tests are marked with a red pen and points are taken off. As a result, school teaches us to avoid mistakes rather than to make mistakes and then learn from them.

Failures are actually brilliant opportunities to learn. It is often easier to diagnose what went wrong after a failure than to figure out the key elements that lead to a success. By avoiding failure, then, we are removing an important tool from our mental toolbox.

It is important to readjust our relationship to mistakes and failures. To do that, it is important to distinguish between negligence and failure. Negligence happens when a project is done without effort and careful attention to detail. Failure is when a project does not turn out as we hoped it would, despite our best effort. Negligence should be punished. Failures should be studied. The good efforts should be praised and the mistakes should be corrected.

And if we truly look carefully at the success of Steve Jobs, it becomes clear that, while he had very high standards, he was not truly a perfectionist. He did make compromises to get products out the door knowing that they could be improved in the future. Indeed, it was significant failures like the NeXT that helped drive home for Steve Jobs the danger of striving too hard for perfection.

[Image: Flickr user Shawn Campbell]

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3 Comments

  • Clifford Biff Smith

    NeXT was not a failure because it's the NeXT operating system kernel in operation today in every Mac, IPhone and iPad. NeXT is alive and well.

  • Todd Ruel

    I kinda have to disagree with one point here. Despite his very high standards, Steve Jobs failed with NeXT, because nobody could afford his very highly priced products. The products were great, but his intended market - educators - couldn't pay what he was asking. Jobs' failure in this instance was not because of perfectionism. It was because he made the right product for the wrong market.

  • I think these are related. Because Jobs wanted the design and architecture of the NeXT to meet exceedingly high standards, he priced himself out of the market.