Recently I watched a new documentary of South Park—the animated comedy about four vulgar grade-schoolers from Colorado—called Six Days to Air. It catalogued the making of one of the show’s new episodes: Human CentIpad.
The documentary was entertaining and informative. I learned that South Park has survived through 15 seasons because the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, know how to kill perfectionism.
Parker and Stone have only six days to make a new episode. During the process of making Human CentIpad, Parker described what it’s like to be under such pressure:
There is a show on this Wednesday and we don’t even know what it is. And like, even though that’s the way we’ve always done it, there’s this little thing going ‘Oh, you’re screwed… you’re screwed!’
Parker and Stone choose to work under a time constraint, though. When a deadline nears, they’re forced to be creative, like a college kid getting a last wind of midnight motivation to finish a term paper.
I always feel like, wow, I wish I had another day with this show. That’s the reason that there are so many episodes of South Park that we’re able to get done, is because there just is a deadline and you can’t keep going.
Because there would be so many shows where I would be like, no, it’s not ready yet, and I would’ve spent four weeks on one show. All you do is start second-guessing yourself and rewriting stuff and you get to over-thought… and it would have been five percent better.
The lesson: kill your perfectionism
Parker’s and Stone’s work habits teach us that polishing and perfecting a piece of work is less effective than finishing it, and sending it out into the world for feedback.
That’s not true in all cases though. Sometimes perfectionism can be valuable. Quality rises in proportion to the time you spend tweaking and reworking something.
But as soon as you start obsessing over one project too much, you become counterproductive. Being perfectionistic forces you to be cautious, to go slow and to repeat completed work.
The South Park team understands the benefits of working with speed and precision.
In this building, you not only have to be good and diverse but you also have to be fast. If it takes you four days to get something done, you can’t really contribute. When push comes to shove and we’re in production, people just have to be able to turn stuff around.
—South Park animator.
I think that having a perfectionistic attitude can be very beneficial to an artist, but there’s a line that is often crossed, a threshold where results start to level off.
With all the time and mental energy you spend on over-thinking your work, the slight improvement in quality doesn’t justify it. It’s just not efficient.
You’ll be more productive if you set a short deadline and follow it—no matter what.
The temptation to be a perfectionist may always be there, a voice in your head convincing you that your work isn’t ready for exposure. But you must charge through that damaging little voice. That’s the only way to kill your perfectionism—through sheer force of will.
Even Trey Parker, after so many years of success, gets swamped with the temptation to be perfect.
I feel like it’s the worst episode we’ve ever done. [Laughs] That’s how I always feel about now.
Except his episodes are almost always hilarious and exceptionally well-written.