I have a problem.
One consistent issue I’ve had throughout my personal development projects is that I am constantly making things harder on myself than they need to be. I have a pretty destructive streak of perfectionism, at times, and it hits me worst when I’m working on a project that combines a few fatal flaws:
I have, thankfully, managed to pack away most of these impulses in my professional life. I can get myself motivated to figure out what’s good enough, rather than what’s an unattainable Perfect, when other peoples’ money, expectations, and time are on the line. It’s not that I don’t care about my work, it’s just that I’ve learned to find reasonable trade-offs and negotiate.
When I’m working on games in my spare time, though, I often have all three of these in full force.
It’s really the third point that gets me. Like any good indie game developer I have a lot of projects that have taken up residence in the back of my mind, poking at me occasionally to work on them. Sometimes I can quiet these with a couple of drawings or a few hours of tooling around on the weekend. Others, though, have gnawed away for more than a decade.
All of that time lends power to those ideas; it makes me see them as bigger than they are. Let’s face it: an idea with no follow-through is pretty small (and pretty useless). The years of thought and mental work I’ve lent to them, though, makes them seem monumentous and weighty. It makes them see important.
Which makes it hard to let them be just “good enough”. They have to be perfect.
“Good enough” really is good enough, though, you know? It’s right there in the name! An idea that’s executed at three-quarters of its potential (over-blown) greatness is way better than an idea that sits in the back of your mind making you more afraid of trying it with each passing year. Getting it out in the world means it can be bad and get better, instead of existing as an elusive, useless platonic ideal of what it could be.
I know this intellectually, but it’s much harder to put into practice than it is to recognize.
I love a lot of stupid jokes. An old standby of mine is, “If you always assume the worst, you will only ever pleasantly surprised.”
One way to deal with this unfortunate perfectionism is to set your own expectations low. Really low. Tell yourself you’re building a piece of garbage. Garbage can be useful, after all! You can use it to shake the kinks out of some ideas, or to test an engine you want to use. If you can’t make something brilliant (because your only ideas demand brilliance from you) than make something bad. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself with what you get out of it.
This method has let me build an entire (small) jRPG, and write an unnecessarily-long novel (but, sadly, not to actually edit it into anything readable, yet). In both cases, I was pleasantly surprised. Neither of them are great masterpieces, but in comparison to the “terrible garbage” I set out to make, they are pretty good.
I can’t actually really recommend this to anyone else, though. Just writing it out sounds dumb enough that I suspect it is, in fact, actually dumb. It has helped me a bit, but it fails in crucial way:
It doesn’t actually get the projects I want to do done. It just delays them. It’s just procrastination, really. Who wants to spend all of their spare time making garbage, anyway?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make something good, and not just merely something that exists.
There’s something magical about an idea that’s stuck with you for a long time. It has grown up with you, and changed over time. Maybe you remember earlier iterations of the idea, and how you’ve morphed it into something you like much better. Maybe you remember the discarded part, and can work them back into it later, but better. You can see how different things in your life have influenced your plans and your thinking. That magic, the source of the unfortunate seductive perfectionism, also gives the project life for you. It’s easy to be excited about that old project.
There’s something to be said for actually aiming high, but being accepting of the fact that you won’t ever quite hit what you want. Accept it the exact same way you accept the fact that your “piece of absolute trash” game is actually better than you anticipated. Treat the ideal in your head as a landmark to guide you, even if it doesn’t end up being your destination.
At least, I hope this all works. I’ve still only made garbage.