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Perfection Is The Enemy Of Productivity featured image of Paste Pot Pete

Perfection is the Enemy of Productivity, Or: Why You Should Be Like Stan and Jack

I will continue to tell anyone who will listen that Jim Collins’ Good to Great is the best business book I’ve ever read. Or, at least I will until I read something better. And in that wonderful tome, Collins’ presents a mantra: good is the enemy of great. His meaning: by being content with simply eeking along (being good), you will never take the steps necessary to be great. I totally agree with him, but I think there’s a corollary: perfection is the enemy of productivity.

Perfection is the Enemy of Productivity

Striving to be great doesn’t mean waiting until everything is perfect. It means always trying to be better than you were yesterday. But there are many who fall for the perfection trap: I can’t launch until my plan is perfect. Or, I can’t write until I’m in a creative mood and have the proper scented candles. Or, I can’t start developing until I have all of the resources I need to make my ideal game. Down that road lays a whole pile of wasted ambition and lost opportunities.

Call of Humble

I LOVE Call of Duty. I’m one of those weirdos who plays it specifically (and, with most iterations, exclusively) for the campaign mode. And last year’s Infinite Warfare did not disappoint. Big spectacle, beautiful art direction, an amazing score. Just over-the-top, explosively violent spectacle. I loved every minute of it.

So, out of curiosity, I went back and played the original Call of Duty. The one that came out for PC in 2003. And…holy shit.

The original CoD was intended to be a Medal of Honor killer. Its frame of reference was someone else’s game, meaning, by design, it would launch in another brand’s shadow. The mission intros were static images with VO. No cut-scenes to speak of. Very simple level designs. And some truly egregious enemy spawning.

Basically, it was a humble little PC shooter in a market flooded with PC shooters. If you played it and then someone told you that brand was destined to conquer the world – sitting alongside titles like Grand Theft Auto and Halo (both contemporaries) – you’d have told him to lay off the bong rips.

Iterations of Duty

It is damn near impossible to see any connection between the original Call of Duty and Infinite Warfare. That is, or course, until you consider the 13 major iterations that occurred between them. Call of Duty 2 is much the same as its forbearer, but with a proprietary engine, smoother gameplay and more interesting level design. CoD 3 added cut-scenes and even more sophisticated level design. CoD 4 took the drastic step of saying ::GASP:: that the brand could be about something other than Nazis and added a wider variety of mission and environment types. More importantly, it added the famous leveling and Prestige systems to multiplayer. On and on.

It wasn’t a linear path and it wasn’t without its missteps. But the point is that there would be no big budget Infinite Warefare without the humble little WWII shooter that could called Call of Duty to get the ball rolling. And all the incremental progress along the way. And I doubt there was any thorough, strategic, Marvel-Cinematic-Universe, 10-year master plan behind it.

Speaking of Marvel

Confession time. I have a weird OCD: it’s really hard for me to enjoy an media franchise if I watch/play/read them out of order. It’s maddening. Like, no joke, I have a sealed collectors edition copy of Final Fantasy XII that I picked up at launch in 2006. Why is it still sealed? Because I was in the process of playing through all the prior games in order (FFII then; I’m currently working through FFX now). “But, Justin” you’re saying at your screen “those games aren’t even connected in terms of their stories.” I know. My OCD doesn’t care.

But my Final Fantasy odyssey isn’t even the most extreme example. The worst case of my OCD is my Marvel odyssey. I’ve been reading Marvel’s entire backlog. Going back the 1930’s. Although, truthfully, I skipped much of the 40’s and all of the 50’s (when Marvel was just putting out weird one-off sci-fi and horror pulp comics). I’m working through the 60’s currently.

Insane and pointlessly obstinate as this little endeavor has been, it did reveal one very important observation: the 60’s, the golden age of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, was, at times, a god-dammed shit show. Sure, it was the point of origin for the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, Daredevil, Spider-Man and so many other classic characters. You know who else came out of that period? Paste Pot-mother-fuckin-Pete. Yes, that is an actual character. Also, Gargantus, and the Human Top. In other words, they crafted some shit.

I’m not knocking them for this. I think it’s awesome.

Why? Because they created. Over and over and over again. Fearlessly, maybe recklessly. But they just kept at it.


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Character Development (Sorta)

And the characters themselves changed. And I don’t mean in some pre-ordained, carefully crafted story arc. Nope. Just ’cause. Example: Beast was originally simply the X-Men’s version of The Thing: big, strong, no class, lots of New York slang. Until one issue when he just…wasn’t. All of a sudden he was professorial. Dignified. Sesquipedalian. There was no continuity, no exposition. Stan and co just abruptly changed how he talked between one issue and the next.

Now, consider the case of the one and only Incredible Hulk. Initially he was grey…until a printing mishap had him come out green. And the Marvel folks just ran with it. The Hulk/Banner relationship was also very much a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde initially. Hulk was sentient, fully verbal, and very malignant. The Avengers had trouble controlling him, not because he as a ball of rage, but because he was a surly cuss, a borderline supervillain. That was until – again – he simply wasn’t. After a few issues of surly cuss hulk, he suddenly started talking in the halting, “Me Hulk, me SMASH!!” cadence that we all know and love. Again, no continuity here. He just went…kinda…feral.

Mix and Match

What’s more, they jumbled all of the characters together. Daredevil fought Spider-Man villain Electro. The X-Men tangled with the Fantastic Four. Captain America showed up in Nick Fury’s WWII series. On and on.  You know how rad it is when you pull up the next chronological comic and see Magneto wresting Mjolnir from Thor on the cover?

In management terms, they made the most of what they had on hand. And a little bit of cross-over goes a long way toward adding some variety and the sense of a shared universe.

The Angry Nintendo…I mean Video Game Nerd

James Rolfe is another example of just putting content out. Nowadays he has elaborate skits with guest stars, VO, charmingly cheesy special effects, and heavy metal. His first videos…not so much. His very first post, lambasting Castlevania II, was just captured video and restrained VO (relative to his latter tirades, at least). The second was only slightly more elaborate. It wasn’t until his third video that he gave himself the title of the Angry Nintendo Nerd. His theme song showed up in episode 7. He was 15 episodes in before he became the Angry Video Game Nerd.

His YouTube channel has, as I write this, just shy of 400k subscribers. His videos have hundreds of thousands of views each. My point isn’t that I think he’s amazing, but that he built that up over time. He started with what he had and built it into something deliberately over iteration after iteration. Release after release.


Further Reading if you Enjoyed this Post

Starting a Video Game Company: Conversations for Co-Founders

Marketing Games: Sun Tzu and the Fine Art of Succeeding Before You Begin

If You Want to Lead, Know Your Values (Guest Post Hosted Externally)


What am I Getting At?

Here’s the lesson I draw from all of this: Create. Try. Show it to the world BEFORE it’s perfect. Iterate. Leverage what you have. Repeat. What if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had sat on all of those characters until they reached some theoretical point of perfection? Or until they met some minimum threshold for a reasonable stable of characters? Marvel would have bitten it. Stan and Steve and Jack and the rest of those legends just kept at it. Day after day. Week after week. Issue after issue. Series after series. Character after character.

When Steve Jobs died, longtime minion Guy Kawasaki said one of the best lesson he learned from the Apple founder was “Ship, don’t slip.”

So ship it. Get out there. Go before you’re ready. Sell before it’s perfect. Commit before you’re comfortable. Roll with the limitations on scope.

Because the project that you think is too humble to match your vision is the one that might actually make your vision possible.


Key Takeaways

  • You should always strive to be great
  • But perfection is a mirage and will quickly derail productivity
  • For all of it’s modern-day big-budget spectacle and brand recognition, Call of Duty was once an also ran WWII shooter
  • Marvel created a lot of memorable characters in the 60’s, but they also created a lot of terrible ones too; they also kept at it
  • James Rolfe is an YouTube celebrity now, but his first videos were nothing like his current elaborate spectacles; he didn’t wait until he had everything in line; he just went for it
  • Projects that seem humble and small today may be the same project that unlock opportunities in the future

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“Perfection is the Enemy of Productivity, Or: Why You Should Be Like Stan and Jack” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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  1. Pingback: Bottlenecks and Hindsight: Why Auteurs Make Horrible Economists

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