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The pursuit of perfection is killing your creativity
Lewis Carroll’s most famous work is Alice In Wonderland. But the bold and talented Mr Carroll had many other works that inspired fervent debate among fans and critics alike.
None more so than his nonsensical poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” It’s a story of the anguish a group of men experienced searching for something that didn’t exist.
While the Snark didn’t exist. They didn’t know that. Their obsession and desire to find it most certainly did — and thus the dark despair and shameful misery of failure, was very real.
It’s the perfection trap.Perfection is an illusion. It doesn’t exist.
There's no such thing as perfection, you're never finished with a film. You run out of time.Seeking something that doesn’t exist is futile. As we’re blissfully ignorant feelings of failure and shame echo deep within us.
Can you feel a failure for not reaching a level that doesn’t exist? Yep, of course, you can.
Because you believe perfection exists.
We all live in realities based on our beliefs.
Perfectionists have unrealistic goals and expectations. They are self-defeating. It’s really a fear of failure.
And it is an epidemic crippling artists and creatives.
‘Working hard, being committed, diligent, and so on – these are all desirable features. But for a perfectionist, those are really a symptom, or a side product, of what perfectionism is. Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.Imagine a dial from one to ten. One being shit and ten being excellence. Perfection is eleven. Even if you achieve the maximum of ten, you feel a failure because you haven’t reached the unobtainable and illusionary eleven. And, thus, perfection will steal all your joy and passion. It may kill your creativity entirely.
Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself,’ says York St John University’s Professor Andrew Hill who has completed over 60 studies into perfectionism.
Even creative geniuses suffer from it.
Claude Monet was a perfectionist. ‘My life has been nothing but a failure,’ he once said.
He often destroyed paintings in a perfectionist rage including 15 -30 of them on the day of a major exhibition. Monet’s paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars.
The paradox of perfectionismPerfectionism is complex. It is grossly misunderstood in society. Many consider it to be a virtue. A sign of excellence but they are wrong. Its very essence is born from not feeling good enough.
According to two of the leading perfectionist researchers, Paul Hewitt, PhD and psychologist Gordon Flett.I’m in recovery myself. I used to brag about being a perfectionist like it was a badge of honour.
Perfectionists are not driven by the pursuit of perfection; they're driven by the avoidance of failure. Perfectionists aren't really trying to be perfect, they are avoiding not being good enough.
I know now it was all fear. As a manager, I was terrified of failing, carrying the burden and responsibility of artist’s careers was a heavy load.
It’s a truth I hid from for many years.
We all feel fear. Putting our work out there is scary. Exposing our creativity to criticism. Having the guts to show up.
But, there’s something deliciously exhilarating about dancing dangerously with fear. If you channel fear it becomes your superpower.Perfectionism is an excuse not to release material or try something new. It’s an excuse not to take risks and grow.
And on the face of it: a noble one. It’s a convincing lie we tell ourselves. Once we have achieved perfection we will be happy with it.
Perfection doesn’t exist and we shall never be happy. And, often, our work goes unreleased. Too fearful to even try.
Even if you do release, you don’t promote it as hard as you could. You don’t truly believe in it so you avoid giving people the opportunity to reject it.
You try and avoid the shame of failure by not trying hard.
In professional tennis, they call it ‘tanking.’
Professional tennis players deliberately stop trying to win for their fear of not being good enough. They believe it will hurt less to lose if they don’t try hard.
Artists and producers tank their work all the time.
For perfectionists, performance is welded to our self-worth. When we don’t succeed, we don’t just feel disappointed. We feel shame.Perfectionism is a coping mechanism to stop us from feeling shame. If we’re perfect, we never fail, and if we never fail, there’s no shame.
Which is perfect. Except it’s not.
Trouble is failure is inevitable in music. If you fear failing, you won’t take risks.
Without risk, without doing something different, your music is lost in the sea of mediocrity.
Creativity without risk is vanilla. It is bland.
It’s not failing that is the issue, it’s your attempts to avoid failure that is the problem. You are diluting your creativity. You’re not growing and developing but receding.
You think you’re striving for excellence but really you’re limiting yourself. Your creative world is getting smaller and smaller —out of fear.That is your perfectionism. Complex huh?
A self-sabotaging mindset that seeks out and destroys you for natural imperfections, rather than praising you for your progress.
Or for the creative risks you have taken.
The twisted irony is your failure is being created by your own fear of failure. It’s your unrealistic goals and expectations of perfectionism that makes you fail. It is your fear of failure and not your perceived lack of talent.
The difference between perfection and excellenceThe search for excellence is peak creative performance. It is often mistaken as perfectionism and while it looks similar it is actually a very different mindset.
Excellence is what you need to shoot for.
We can only do our best. Our best may not be good enough —yet. But we can expand the parameters of our best.
We do this with practice and dedicating ourselves to improving our craft. We do this by committing to progress.It’s a glass half full thinking.
Prince was famously considered to be a perfectionist. He was notorious for his obsessive rehearsing and attention to detail. But they were wrong, Prince demanded excellence and not perfection.
In 2007, Prince and his band the New Power Generation were booked to do the Super Bowl halftime show in Miami.
Prince had a 12 minute set. He along with his band rehearsed obsessively for weeks in advance. They had the set and arrangements nailed. Yet, moments before they walked on to the stage, Prince changed everything.
He dropped the horn section. 3 players who had spent weeks in rehearsal with the band. Prince dropped their parts, changed the arrangements and entered the stage to play a new set to a live audience of 75,000 and a TV audience of 144 million.
Those were not the actions of a perfectionist. Perfectionism is about fear. It’s about control. Those were the actions of an artist so well rehearsed that he has the confidence to change everything so he could achieve excellence.
A perfectionist is rigid and refuses to change anything regardless of the circumstances as they are terrified of failing. It is a fixed mindset.
An artist that seeks excellence will change anything if they believe it will improve the track or performance. It is a growth mindset.A perfectionist is a pessimist and a seeker of excellence is an optimist. A pessimist avoids criticism, an optimist welcomes it so they can learn from it and grow.
Prince’s Super Bowl halftime show is widely regarded as the best ever. He was delighted with it.
The search for excellence comes from focusing on progress. It’s dedicating ourselves to mastering our craft. It’s focusing on the process. It’s growing and developing.
Perfectionism is obsessing about outcomes. It’s about not feeling good enough and investing your self-worth into results. It’s about getting smaller and receding.
It’s when your fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Conclusion:Strive for excellence and pass on perfectionism. Focus on progress and ignore the outcomes.
Creativity compounds with practice.
Failure: is not a weakness. It is inevitable. It is essential to growing as an artist. Every time you fail, you are getting better. Re-frame your relationship with failure. It does not define you. Take creative risks. Do something different. Failure is critically important to your development.
Control: What we try and control, controls us. What we suppress, becomes our suppressor. You can’t control or suppress fear, that only makes it stronger. Perfectionism is really suppressed fear. You must accept and embrace it. It is the key to your creativity.
Self-worth: Stop investing your self worth in the success or failure of your music. It’s just a song. It does not define your talent. It is merely part of your development. No one is perfect. It’s all an illusion.
Redefine your goals: be more realistic. You will not be a culture defining artist or producer in a couple of years. Have big goals but break them down into bitesize chunks. Get comfy with being shit, aspire to be good and then shoot for great. Focus all your efforts on progress. Get marginally better week after week.
Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it.Thanks for reading. Peace Out
The Economist: "Value investing is struggling to remain relevant"
Found this to be an excellent read and would love to hear what /investing has to say. Full article below:
It is now more than 20 years since the Nasdaq, an index of technology shares, crashed after a spectacular rise during the late 1990s. The peak in March 2000 marked the end of the internet bubble. The bust that followed was a vindication of the stringent valuation methods pioneered in the 1930s by Benjamin Graham, the father of “value” investing, and popularised by Warren Buffett. For this school, value means a low price relative to recent profits or the accounting (“book”) value of assets. Sober method and rigour were not features of the dotcom era. Analysts used vaguer measures, such as “eyeballs” or “engagement”. If that was too much effort, they simply talked up “the opportunity”.
Plenty of people sense a replay of the dotcom madness today. For much of the past decade a boom in America’s stockmarket has been powered by an elite of technology (or technology-enabled) shares, including Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. The value stocks favoured by disciples of Graham have generally languished. But change may be afoot. In the past week or so, fortunes have reversed. Technology stocks have sold off. Value stocks have rallied, as prospects for a coronavirus vaccine raise hopes of a quick return to a normal economy. This might be the start of a long-heralded rotation from overpriced tech to far cheaper cyclicals—stocks that do well in a strong economy. Perhaps value is back.
This would be comforting. It would validate a particular approach to valuing companies that has been relied upon for the best part of a century by some of the most successful investors. But the uncomfortable truth is that some features of value investing are ill-suited to today’s economy. As the industrial age gives way to the digital age, the intrinsic worth of businesses is not well captured by old-style valuation methods, according to a recent essay by Michael Mauboussin and Dan Callahan of Morgan Stanley Investment Management.
The job of stockpicking remains to take advantage of the gap between expectations and fundamentals, between a stock’s price and its true worth. But the job has been complicated by a shift from tangible to intangible capital—from an economy where factories, office buildings and machinery were key to one where software, ideas, brands and general know-how matter most. The way intangible capital is accounted for (or rather, not accounted for) distorts measures of earnings and book value, which makes them less reliable metrics on which to base a company’s worth. A different approach is required—not the flaky practice of the dotcom era but a serious method, grounded in logic and financial theory. However, the vaunted heritage of old-school value investing has made it hard for a fresher approach to gain traction.
Graham’s crackerTo understand how this investment philosophy became so dominant, go back a century or so to when equity markets were still immature. Prices were noisy. Ideas about value were nascent. The decision to buy shares in a particular company might by based on a tip, on inside information, on a prejudice, or gut feel. A new class of equity investors was emerging. It included far-sighted managers of the endowment funds of universities. They saw that equities had advantages over bonds—notably those backed by mortgages, railroads or public utilities—which had been the preferred asset of long-term investors, such as insurance firms.
This new church soon had two doctrinal texts. In 1934 Graham published “Security Analysis” (with co-author David Dodd), a dense exposition of number-crunching techniques for stockpickers. Another of Graham’s books is easier to read and perhaps more influential. “The Intelligent Investor”, first published in 1949, ran in revised editions right up until (and indeed beyond) Graham’s death in 1976. The first edition is packed with sage analysis, which is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago.
Underpinning it all is an important distinction—between the price and value of a stock. Price is a creature of fickle sentiment, of greed and fear. Intrinsic value, by contrast, depends on a firm’s earnings power. This in turn derives from the capital assets on its books: its factories, machines, office buildings and so on.
The approach leans heavily on company accounts. The valuation of a stock should be based on a conservative multiple of future profits, which are themselves based on a sober projection of recent trends. The book value of the firm’s assets provides a cross-check. The past might be a crude guide to the future. But as Graham argued, it is a “more reliable basis of valuation than some other future plucked out of the air of either optimism or pessimism”. As an extra precaution, investors should seek a margin of safety between the price paid for a stock and its intrinsic value, to allow for any errors in the reckoning. The tenets of value investing were thus established. Be conservative. Seek shares with a low price-earnings or price-to-book ratio.
The enduring status of his approach owes more to Graham as tutor than the reputation he enjoyed as an investor. Graham taught a class on stockpicking at Columbia University. His most famous student was Mr Buffett, who took Graham’s investment creed, added his own twists and became one of the world’s richest men. Yet the stories surrounding Mr Buffett’s success are as important as the numbers, argued Aswath Damodaran of New York University’s Stern School of Business in a recent series of YouTube lectures on value investing. The bold purchase of shares in troubled American Express in 1964; the decision to dissolve his partnership in 1969, because stocks were too dear; the way he stoically sat out the dotcom mania decades later. These stories are part of the Buffett legend. The philosophy of value investing has been burnished by association.
It helped also that academic finance gave a back-handed blessing to value investing. An empirical study in 1992 by Eugene Fama, a Nobel-prize-winning finance theorist, and Kenneth French found that volatility, a measure of risk, did not explain stock returns between 1963 and 1990, as academic theory suggested it should. Instead they found that low price-to-book shares earned much higher returns over the long run than high price-to-book shares. One school of finance, which includes these authors, concluded that price-to-book might be a proxy for risk. For another school, including value investors, the Fama-French result was evidence of market inefficiency—and a validation of the value approach.
All this has had a lasting impact. Most investors “almost reflexively describe themselves as value investors, because it sounds like the right thing to say”, says Mr Damodaran. Why would they not? Every investor is a value investor, even if they are not attached to book value or trailing earnings as the way to select stocks. No sane person wants to overpay for stocks. The problem is that “value” has become a label for a narrow kind of analysis that often confuses means with ends. The approach has not worked well for a while. For much of the past decade, value stocks have lagged behind the general market and a long way behind “growth” stocks, their antithesis (see chart 1). Old-style value investing looks increasingly at odds with how the economy operates.
In Graham’s day the backbone of the economy was tangible capital. But things have changed. What makes companies distinctive, and therefore valuable, is not primarily their ownership of physical assets. The spread of manufacturing technology beyond the rich world has taken care of that. Any new design for a gadget, or garment, can be assembled to order by contract manufacturers from components made by any number of third-party factories. The value in a smartphone or a pair of fancy athletic shoes is mostly in the design, not the production.
In service-led economies the value of a business is increasingly in intangibles—assets you cannot touch, see or count easily. It might be software; think of Google’s search algorithm or Microsoft’s Windows operating system. It might be a consumer brand like Coca-Cola. It might be a drug patent or a publishing copyright. A lot of intangible wealth is even more nebulous than that. Complex supply chains or a set of distribution channels, neither of which is easily replicable, are intangible assets. So are the skills of a company’s workforce. In some cases the most valuable asset of all is a company’s culture: a set of routines, priorities and commitments that have been internalised by the workforce. It can’t always be written down. You cannot easily enter a number for it into a spreadsheet. But it can be of huge value all the same.
A beancounter’s nightmareThere are three important aspects to consider with respect to intangibles, says Mr Mauboussin: their measurement, their characteristics, and their implications for the way companies are valued. Start with measurement. Accounting for intangibles is notoriously tricky. The national accounts in America and elsewhere have made a certain amount of progress in grappling with the challenge. Some kinds of expenditure that used to be treated as a cost of production, such as r&d and software development, are now treated as capital spending in gdp figures. The effect on measured investment rates is quite marked (see chart 2). But intangibles’ treatment in company accounts is a bit of a mess. By their nature, they have unclear boundaries. They make accountants queasy. The more leeway a company has to turn day-to-day costs into capital assets, the more scope there is to fiddle with reported earnings. And not every dollar of r&d or advertising spending can be ascribed to a patent or a brand. This is why, with a few exceptions, such spending is treated in company accounts as a running cost, like rent or electricity.
The treatment of intangibles in mergers makes a mockery of this. If, say, one firm pays $2bn for another that has $1bn of tangible assets, the residual $1bn is counted as an intangible asset—either as brand value, if that can be appraised, or as “goodwill”. That distorts comparisons. A firm that has acquired brands by merger will have those reflected in its book value. A firm that has developed its own brands will not.
The second important aspect of intangibles is their unique characteristics. A business whose assets are mostly intangible will behave differently from one whose assets are mostly tangible. Intangible assets are “non-rival” goods: they can be used by lots of people simultaneously. Think of the recipe for a generic drug or the design of a semiconductor. That makes them unlike physical assets, whose use by one person or for one kind of manufacture precludes their use by or for another.
In their book “Capitalism Without Capital” Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake provided a useful taxonomy, which they call the four Ss: scalability, sunkenness, spillovers and synergies. Of these, scalability is the most salient. Intangibles can be used again and again without decay or constraint. Scalability becomes turbo-charged with network effects. The more people use a firm’s services, the more useful they are to other customers. They enjoy increasing returns to scale; the bigger they get, the cheaper it is to serve another customer. The big business successes of the past decade—Google, Amazon and Facebook in America; and Alibaba and Tencent in China—have grown to a size that was not widely predicted. But there are plenty of older asset-light businesses that were built on such network effects—think of Visa and Mastercard. The result is that industries become dominated by one or a few big players. The same goes for capital spending. A small number of leading firms now account for a large share of overall investment (see chart 3).
Physical assets usually have some second-hand value. Intangibles are different. Some are tradable: you can sell a well-known brand or license a patent. But many are not. You cannot (or cannot easily) sell a set of relationships with suppliers. That means the costs incurred in creating the asset are not recoverable—hence sunkenness. Business and product ideas can easily be copied by others, unless there is some legal means, such as a patent or copyright, to prevent it. This characteristic gives rise to spillovers from one company to another. And ideas often multiply in value when they are combined with other ideas. So intangibles tend to generate bigger synergies than tangible assets.
The third aspect of intangibles to consider is their implications for investors. A big one is that earnings and accounting book value have become less useful in gauging the value of a company. Profits are revenues minus costs. If a chunk of those costs are not running expenses but are instead spending on intangible assets that will generate future cashflows, then earnings are understated. And so, of course, is book value. The more a firm spends on advertising, r&d, workforce training, software development and so on, the more distorted the picture is.
The distinction between a running expense and investment is crucial for securities analysis. An important part of the stock analyst’s job is to understand both the magnitude of investment and the returns on it. This is not a particularly novel argument, as Messrs Mauboussin and Callahan point out. It was made nearly 60 years ago in a seminal paper by Merton Miller and Francesco Modigliani, two Nobel-prize-winning economists. They divided the value of a company into two parts. The first—call it the “steady state”—assumes that that the company can sustain its current profits into the future. The second is the present value of future growth opportunities—essentially what the firm might become. The second part depends on the firm’s investment: how much it does, the returns on that investment and how long the opportunity lasts. To begin to estimate this you have to work out the true rate of investment and the true returns on that investment.
The nature of intangible assets makes this a tricky calculation. But worthwhile analysis is usually difficult. “You can’t abdicate your responsibility to understand the magnitude of investment and the returns to it,” says Mr Mauboussin. Old-style value investors emphasise the steady state but largely ignore the growth-opportunities part. But for a youngish company able to grow at an exponential rate by exploiting increasing returns to scale, the future opportunity will account for the bulk of valuation. For such a firm with a high return on investment, it makes sense to plough profits back into the firm—and indeed to borrow to finance further investment.
Picking winners in an intangible economy—and paying a price for stocks commensurate with their chances of success—is not for the faint-hearted. Some investments will be a washout; sunkenness means some costs cannot be recovered. Network effects give rise to winner-takes-all or winner-takes-most markets, in which the second-best firm is worth a fraction of the best. Value investing seems safer. But the trouble with screening for stocks with a low price-to-book or price-to-earnings ratio is that it is likelier to select businesses whose best times are behind them than it is to identify future success.
Up, up and awayProperly understood, the idea of fundamental value has not changed. Graham’s key insight was that price will sometimes fall below intrinsic value (in which case, buy) and sometimes will rise above it (in which case, sell). In an economy mostly made up of tangible assets you could perhaps rely on a growth stock that had got ahead of itself to be pulled back to earth, and a value stock that got left behind to eventually catch up. Reversion to the mean was the order of the day. But in a world of increasing returns to scale, a firm that rises quickly will often keep on rising.
The economy has changed. The way investors think about valuation has to change, too. This is a case that’s harder to make when the valuation differential between tech and value stocks is so stark. A correction at some stage would not be a great surprise. The appeal of old-style value investing is that it is tethered to something concrete. In contrast, forward-looking valuations are by their nature more speculative. Bubbles are perhaps unavoidable; some people will extrapolate too far. Nevertheless, were Ben Graham alive today he would probably be revising his thinking. No one, least of all the father of value investing, said stockpicking was easy.