The Born Freelancer on Striving For Perfection

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments. bornfreel2


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between those ideas which inspire me most and the monumental task of transforming them into reality. Try as I might, my ideas are almost always better than the projects they engender. Therein lies the dilemma of most creative activity.

Every original undertaking I have ever worked on, or ever hope to work on, begins with an outline in my mind of its idealized qualities. It may suddenly pop into blurry focus (if inspiration hits) or may evolve and slowly start to make sense, like tuning in an old shortwave radio station amidst distracting static and background noise.

When it enters my mind I can almost immediately tell if it is something I actually want to work on. I always feel the excitement of a new worthwhile concept running through my veins like an addictive drug.

In this embryonic state my idea (if it seems any good) exists as The Ideal. It’s perfect! So much so that it is impossible to stop myself from compulsively writing down random notes to eventually help me bring it to life as accurately as possible. It could be an idea for print, or broadcast, or yes, even a blog!

But if I am to actively pursue it – and not just nurse it along as a pleasant daydream – there comes a moment of truth when I realize I must turn The Ideal into something readily attainable.

As freelancers we have to think up novel concepts and be responsible for their overall execution and sales. There are no committees with which to bounce around our ideas; there is no head office telling us what we must do with them to succeed. It is a daunting task.

And so we must believe in our ideas with such vigor and single-mindedness that they will survive the ordeal of being put into actual words and risk becoming less than their ideal that had motivated us in the first place. Which is the irony. We need to come into possession of such energizing ideas that we want to commit to them fully. But we must also be aware that by doing so the result will almost always be less than perfection. It is the never ending cycle of striving for The Ideal (perfection) but knowing when and how to accept The Attainable (reality).


The Ideal

The seemingly perfect nature of any new good idea is, of course, what first attracts us to it. But it is perfect only insofar as it is still in our mind: an unrealized fantasy. Use it as a goal, as the compass point to which you are headed, but also be aware of its intrinsic quicksand: it is almost always impossible to achieve in the real world.

Former Beatle, the late John Lennon, many years after the breakup of what was arguably the greatest pop band in history, purportedly said he wished he could redo every one of his recordings. Not one had come out as he had first heard them in his head. For such a legendary artist to admit he had failed to re-create the perfect idealized songs as he had imagined them is mind-blowing. And yet, if he had been able to redo every song would they have been any better? In the end, would he have been any more satisfied? I suspect not and also that we might still be awaiting all those “perfect” recordings.

It was the necessity of achieving The Attainable that allowed Lennon’s visions of his ideal songs to be actualized in the real world. They may be imperfect, from his point of view, but they were all that was ever possible. They were the best that could ever have been made given the circumstances in which their creator found himself. To imagine anything else was possible is pure speculative fantasy.


Less is more than enough

Good new ideas in their initial purest state feel perfect. Very few of us ever get excited about a lousy new idea! Creative individuals then strive to duplicate that perfection in their real world work. But most of us mere mortals eventually learn to accept that we have limitations and that the circumstances in which we find ourselves will ultimately dictate the quality of our work.

To expect anything else is in danger of becoming an unproductive neurotic affliction. It is not a matter of merely “settling” for less than perfection; it is recognizing that this is as good as it gets in reality, as good as it can be, at this moment in time.



Freelancers live in a world of deadlines. The act of perfecting an idea – if allowed to run its natural course – would be a never-ending process. There is never enough time for any creator to say, “I have achieved perfection”. The most they might say is, “This is as perfect as I can make it.” Accepting deadlines is an inevitable component of freelancing.

But rather than thinking of deadlines as inhibitions to perfection, realize that they are, in fact, a primary motivation in achieving as much of our idealized vision as possible. They provide an invaluable “end point” to any act of creation which might otherwise never occur. Indeed, without deadlines, those of us who strive for perfection would probably rarely achieve anything, perfect or otherwise.


In practical terms

When I was starting out I was told by a veteran freelancer that you can be perfect or you can be on time. If you want to be a working freelancer you will be forgiven if your work is not always perfect but never forgiven if you miss a deadline. So I learned it is better to be on time than perfect.

Does this mean turning in sloppy or less than excellent work? Does this mean being dissatisfied with the entire imperfect creative process?

Not at all!

There is never any excuse for getting factual information wrong. There is never any excuse for giving any project less than your all, less than your very best, right up to the very last moment of your deadline. It is called being a professional. (Indeed, for freelancers, these should be ironclad rules with which to live by).

But it also means once you have done so, you must accept the results, submit your work under the terms of your contract and move on. Dwelling obsessively upon the distance between The Ideal and your submitted work serves no purpose except to cause you to temporarily lose faith in your own abilities.


The Attainable

I have come to think of The Ideal as a kind of inspirational mold or cast or matrix for any new work. Once I have begun in earnest, I put it aside (to be used again only as a general reference) and focus instead upon using all my skills and talent to bring it to life to the best of my abilities (which I hope I am constantly honing and improving). This, for me, is The Attainable.

Rather than seeing The Attainable as “less” than The Ideal, I prefer to remind myself that within The Attainable I can still manage to convey all the key elements of The Ideal however imperfectly I might assemble them. But most importantly, only The Attainable allows me to complete my work and submit it on time. Nothing else matters if I plan to make a living at it.

And so I have learned to reconcile The Ideal with The Attainable.


The takeaway

I would posit that real world creative perfection, like beauty, primarily exists in the “eye of the beholder”. I may think many of John Lennon’s songs are perfect but it was not a quality their creator could ever appreciate. But of course, he was comparing them to the perfection once heard only in his head.

It is necessary to understand that any creative process is an imperfect midwife for transmuting ideas into reality. But it’s all we’ve got! Rather than fixate upon it, it is much more productive to look upon any limitations as motivations with which we do the very best we can each time.

In fact, I believe the act of transforming any idea from its abstract ideal into its real world imperfect counterpart remains one of the most satisfying endeavours any of us can pursue, even with full knowledge of its limitations and shortcomings.

Perfection is an abstraction that inspires much creativity – in music, in art, and in writing. It is generally impossible for most of us mere mortals in the real world except for rare and fleeting moments when it may be achieved in spite of ourselves.

But there is nothing wrong with the desire for perfection and its use as a goal. Indeed, it remains a kind of “Holy Grail” for many of us to try to reach out for again and again in our freelancing careers.

Today we may only do what we can do to the best of our abilities. But tomorrow – ah, tomorrow we may yet achieve the impossible based upon what yesterday existed only as an exciting new idea!


Posted on February 6, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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