Publish Your Drafts
I'm a perfectionist. It's something I've struggled with for as long as I can remember. For me, when I believe something can be better, it's challenging to settle for anything less. And while that might not sound entirely like a bad thing there's a very real way it can be limiting: when something I'm working on hasn't reached a point of perceived perfection, I'm reluctant to share it. In some cases, things remain in this draft state indefinitely, never seeing the light of day.
Perhaps this is defensible in that I'm talking mostly about things I've worked on for myself: personal projects, unpublished articles, sketches of ideas on a notepad somewhere. But the reality is it hasn't been neatly sequestered and I've found myself hesitating when it comes to other things as well, waiting for a point of arbitrary completion only I can see.
As one example, I was once coaching a new engineering manager on identifying the highest leverage points for the tasks we needed to tackle during the quarter. Having successfully coached this person as an individual contributor, I had learned a bit about what worked for them. Knowing observational learning was a strong fit, I spent a few hours one day developing a roadmap we could anchor our coaching sessions around.
Partway through this exercise I consulted with my manager about the in-progress tactic. "Realizing that an approach where I demonstrate mechanics will fit best, I've drafted a roadmap," I explained. "However, it's going to take me another day or two to finish a few key parts. Then we'll continue with the hands-on coaching work next week." My manager nodded, agreeing with my assessment, but offered an alternative, "I see the missing parts you're talking about, but what would happen if you shared it now?"
I took a moment to reflect. Admittedly, I hadn't considered the idea of sharing an incomplete roadmap. While I knew the new manager could follow finished learning materials with a seasoned practitioner blazing the trail, with my manager's suggestion it occurred to me that we might be able to achieve an even better outcome by working from an unfinished starting point together.
My manager's gentle redirection was spot on, revealing an unintended consequence of my tendency towards perfectionism. By crafting the ideal roadmap in the dark, I was not only delaying progress but also hindering the growth and development of someone who was relying on me for support. As he went on to explain, "I've often found something that's 80% complete will deliver the majority of its value. And there's almost never a time when delivering value too soon would be a mistake."12
One observation here is that it's very difficult for us as individuals to know when something is intellectually valuable to someone else. In part because we're operating from our own accumulation of knowledge which can make it difficult for us to imagine not possessing such insights.3 Worse still, if we overthink the process of communication, we risk withholding an incomplete articulation of ideas and knowledge.
Considering that last point further, it's important to understand the shape of value delivery here. Specifically the binary nature of it: until I share the roadmap I've not created any growth opportunity whatsoever. The advantage of sharing incomplete work is that there's always the possibility, no matter how unfinished, that someone gains something from it, which is otherwise a physical impossibility.
This principle extends to any number of things, from drafts of blog posts to half-baked ideas that have yet to see contact with the outside world, whatever medium they may be.
There are times when it may be wise to refine further before sharing. For instance, my coaching sessions continued and were ultimately quite effective: in the subsequent quarter, the same manager led roadmap development without my direct involvement. However, it was important that we started with some blocking in rather than a blank canvas. Having tried an approach where we worked from ground zero previously, it was clear more structure was a baseline requirement in this particular case.
That said it would be better to make the mistake of being too early and achieving a modicum of incremental value than to be too late, having returned no value at all in the meantime.
For me, I push myself to overcome my aesthetic sense of perfect by erring on the side of sharing more frequently and sooner. The deeper truth is that the bar I hold in my head isn't attainable to begin with; it's never perfect no matter how much time I spend with it. And the only reasonable thing to do with that realization is to challenge myself to adopt a working process that puts aside my anxiety and provides the opportunity to create value earlier.
So ask yourself, does that draft really need more work or is there a chance it might broaden someone's horizons if you published it today?
Loosely applying the Pareto principle, I had spent 20% or so of my planned effort and would later see objectively I had already attained 80% of the value. ↩
Conversely, there is such a thing as being too late. ↩
This is known as the curse of knowledge. ↩
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