Chasing perfection for nothing

March 8, 2022 10:36 PM ET general

Much, if not all, of my job is spent diving in and out of details. Juggling priorities is a micro- and macro-level activity every day. And I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to nail down the perfect way to do, well, lots of things:

Et cetera. But it wasn’t until yesterday that I really realized the folly of all of these efforts, and it was by way of a completely different activity: drum programming.

I’m a miserable drum programmer. I taught myself enough of the DAW that came with my interface at the maw of the pandemic to be able to record passable demos at home. One of the biggest hurdles was (is?) getting drum parts down. I’m no drummer, but I have apparently observed enough to come up with basic drum parts to songs. However, getting those parts from ideation to “done” is a long, grueling process for me.

I sequenced tracks to record demos for based on what I could learn from the process for each song. So, for example, the first one was basic layering and editing – no complex time or meter changes; the second one added busses for song sections and tempo changes, etc. What I learned from the first demo is that there is a right order to construction: scratch track to a click for structure for the overall grid creation and ironing out of form, clean up the scratch track for timing, add any other basic and minimal part to be used for guidance, drum part, everything else.

So, back to drum programming. The important part to know is that I use MIDI to trigger a virtual drum kit, so I'm technically recording MIDI for the drum part (my, how much better these things sound than they did 20 years ago). This means that instead of audio waveforms, the “track” has a grid of tiny events that I can change. I can edit when they happen, when they start and stop, the velocity, the aftertouch, and so on. So I only need to get a part mostly right when initially recording it. Then I can drop the music keyboard and pick up the computer keyboard to fiddle with the individual events until I have the right pattern to use. (This level of fiddling is not at all unlike getting notes entered into notation software and then spending hours fine-tuning the placement of visual glyphs.) It’s not the fastest way to do things, probably, but it brings the process down to a skill level that I can handle.

It’s also the path to madness.

Last night, I spent ... three? hours trying to come up with two bars of a drum part leading into the end of a phrase. In my mind, this meant adding enough punctuation to contribute to the musical phrase; a sensible and finite effort. Two measures of 3/4. Three hours. Some of this wiggling is because this was a demo that was not constructed in the right order (there was no rigid adherence to a grid), but most of it was really about not being able to find the “perfect” drum pattern. What I ended up with isn’t perfect either, not by a mile, but it’s present and inoffensive. Is it underscoring the motion of the phrase? I think so. Is it the kind of part that, once removed, leaves a gaping hole? Probably not.

And so this got me thinking. I think a lot (a LOT. Too much) about parallels between music and work, and this one in particular really struck me: I spent hours trying to make something perfect that literally does not matter to anyone but me. The chances of another human hearing this are greater than zero, but they’re very, very, very small. And those that do hear it (recall that I described this as a “demo”) will not care one whit what kind of drum quasi-fill I added to this partcular section. (Nor will they care that I copied its shape to the similar section at the end of the song.) So this is a detail that I spent hours on, considering it a vital thing—part of the essence of the song—that will change nothing but my own perception.

How much of the time I worry and focus on perfect ways to do things is time wasted? Sure, things I want better at work will lower my stress level, but (as an old boss once told me) there will always be more work. And more stress. I will probably never get to a point where everything is easy and coasting and stress-free. So if something is manageable enough and not lossy, is it good enough? Probably. I am probably chasing perfection for nothing, just as I do in my hobbying.

I realize this is OK in my hobbying. My own perception is, ultimately, the only true goal. But I’m starting to seriously consider that recognizing the outcome of the realization of the platonic ideal of some thing as the secret to being more productive. As my brother once told me from the military, “if it’s the wrong tool for the job, but it works – then it’s the right tool for the job.” And that’s probably true for lots of things that need to get done.