Laying bricks, building castles: sketches aren't perfect

17 January 2021
17 Jan 2021

I came across this quote recently, by Mark Kennedy:

I don’t know what people expect to see what they look in a sketchbook, but they always seem mighty disappointed. I think people expect to see what they would see in a Hollywood version of a sketchbook. Whenever someone is sketching from life in a movie, it’s always supposed to look tossed off and effortless, but it’s really some totally finished and labored-over drawing that some artist spent hours rendering.

Any real sketchbook is full of misfires, false starts and stumbles, with a few successes sprinkled here and there. If you were capable of doing a perfect drawing every time, you wouldn’t need to carry a sketchbook!

Most of your time working on anything remotely novel will be spent in the sketchbook, in shades of misfires and false starts and dead ends. This doesn’t mean you’re bad, or that you’re unproductive, but that you’re making progress. Such is the nature of making anything new, and we should embrace the rough sketches that make the final product possible.

This idea also triggered a thought I had from a conversation a few days ago, about fighting perfectionism when working on projects.

As my portfolio of side projects and writing have grown, I’ve stopped thinking of each individual project or blog post as a single piece of work, and instead started thinking of each piece of work as contributing to the whole of my body of work, my collective opus.

In this mindset, I’m never working on a single side project or blog; I’m working on laying another brick onto the bigger-picture piece of work that is my collective body of work since the start of my career. Each blog post doesn’t stand alone for me, but is just the latest piece in my archive of posts that chronicle what I think about and how I’ve changed over time. My latest side project isn’t just a side project by itself, but the latest piece in the universe of tools and projects I’ve made to decorate the way I interact with my world in my life.

Since I’ve started thinking about work this way, I’ve noticed two changes in my mindset.

First, misfires and mistakes aren’t failures, they’re bricks laid onto my history of work just as valuable as the projects that worked, because the goal of each project becomes bigger than just competing it; the goal of each project is to help me build a better next project. Mistakes fulfill that purpose just as well as well-done projects.

Second, no individual project has to be perfect. Perfectionism can get in the way of “shipping” a particular iteration of a project, because there’s bound to be something missing or imperfect after even the most thorough revisions. But if your goal is to produce the best total body of work you can over time, it doesn’t matter as much that this particular piece is imperfect, because all the projects that came before this one are also imperfect, and so probably will all the projects that come in the future. The point isn’t to build something perfect, but to leave a trail of high-quality work that becomes better over time.

I think this is an inspiring and constructive way to conceptualize the purpose of any creative work – your job isn’t to create the perfect something, but to lay the next brick on a castle, a body of work that will only be completed by your passing. Looking at it this way, perfection and mistakes are hardly important. Instead, you should simply do your best, learn as much as you can, and keep moving forward. Lay the next brick.

Hills beyond the horizon

Enchanted mechanisms of life