There’s a Bruce Springsteen anecdote I really love. By the mid-1970s, he had recorded and released two albums — two really good albums — already. But Springsteen felt the pressure to turn in a breakthrough hit with his third album. He feared that if the third album didn’t go big, he might be finished in the music business.
The first song he stepped into the studio to record for that third album was “Born to Run.” Even if you don’t know anything about Bruce Springsteen, you know that song. It is a legendary, epic rock and roll song, and you won’t find a rock critic or a rock fan who disagrees with that.
Except that at the time, Springsteen himself didn’t think so.
He spent six months — SIX MONTHS! — working on that song. He spent six months working on a song that doesn’t run even five minutes long.
Springsteen, the story goes, became obsessed with the idea of making the perfect rock and roll album. He wanted to make rock and roll clichés seem brand new. He wanted to layer sound upon sound and turn it into something grander than anything that had come before.
“Born to Run” was his first stab at that perfect rock and roll sound. So he worked and worked on the song. He tried to make it perfect.
What he almost ended up doing was smothering a classic.
See, Springsteen lost all connection with how the work is done. Later, he’d tell biographers that he’d been hearing a sound in his head, and he’d become obsessed with it. Problem was, he just couldn’t explain that sound in the studio.
Maybe there really were sounds in Springsteen’s head, but I don’t think so. I like to think that Springsteen was just hearing the voices that all of us who do the work hear — the doubts, the fears, the worries.
The things that kill good work.
All of us who are doing the work — you, me, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bruce Springsteen — are all chasing the same thing. We’re all trying to create work that lasts, that has impact and that matters.
But no matter what you’re building or doing, there are only three stages that matter when you’re doing the work:
You start the work. You improve the work. You get the work up to your liking.
And then you decide that it’s done, and you send it out into the world.
I’ll admit that I didn’t always understand this. After all, aren’t we all striving for a certain level of success? Don’t we have personal standards to maintain?
Certainly. And as you do the work, you’ll learn to reconcile “perfect” with “finished.” With time, it’ll make sense.
Just remember for now: You’re not doing the work just for the sake of staying busy, right? You’re doing the work because you want to get it done and get it into the hands of others.
If you keep holding onto the work until it is absolutely perfect, you will be waiting a very long time. Get the work done, and get onto the next thing. You might think that you should hold onto it, that you should chase perfection, but what you’re really doing is keeping yourself from moving onto newer projects and better work.
Imperfect is okay. What isn’t acceptable is idling. When the time comes to decide if the work is done, don’t hesitate.
Stop asking yourself, “Is it ready?”
Start asking, “Is it done?”
Once you start following those rules — Good. Better. Done. — you’ll start creating a lot of work. Some of it will be good, and some of it will not.
But you won’t really know which is which until you get it out into the world.
That photo of Bruce Springsteen was taken by Takahiro Kyono and reused here thanks to Flickr and a Creative Commons license.