Principles - The Final 5%

In my short time as Creative Director at Arrowhead, it still feels like I'm figuring things out. But after a while, lessons begin to emerge from overlapping experiences. Over time, these lessons become more like principles that drive my work ethic and even my life. 

One such principle that I have come to trust in my life is the critical importance of the final 5% of anything I do. If I quit at 95%, it as if I have actually only finished 30% or at worst, not at all. 

My Education Lied to Me

While attending university, if I received a 95 on an exam, it meant an A. In terms of outcomes, no matter how much better I performed, a 95 was quantifiably equal to a 100. Whether a 95 or 98 or 100, my GPA would be the same. It's still an A. The outcome is no different (at least in my major).

Unfortunately, I have found this does not apply to creative work and the difference between a project that is 95% done and 100% is ENORMOUS. That final 5% is the difference between a terrible product and a great one.

Imagine a dam that is 95% constructed. Or a war 95% won. Or a marriage license 95% signed. What if NASA settled with getting 95% to the moon?

The problem with all of these scenarios is that the outcomes are all or nothing. If you get 95% to the moon, you've still not reached the moon. If you've built 95% of a dam, it won't hold back the water. The war still isn't won. There are some things that need everything you've got - the full 100% - before they are any good at all. For almost everything a creative professional does, this will be the case. 

Here's the truth - To most people, the final 5% of a creative project actually feels like the final 70% 

When I make a story video, I spend hours preparing the schedule, equipment, story outline, B-Roll script, music selection and composition, and volunteer prep. Then the shoot usually takes 1-3 hours, then I spend 5-10 hours on a rough cut of the interview. After that, I spend 2-4 hours mixing the B-Roll with the interview and adding in music. If I stopped there, it would be absolutely terrible and you would have thought I spent 10 minutes on the entire project. But if I spend just one more hour, giving finesse to timing, color grading, and audio transitions, that one hour of work pulls the video from sub amateur to professional. 

This is a significant reason why I rarely show any work on a project until it is at least 99% finished. An artist has to see their work not for what it is, but for what it will become. What everyone else sees is all or nothing. For many people who aren't accustom to such a binary type of profession, a video 95% finished just seems like a really bad video. 

For a long time, I didn't understand the difference between something I would make and the better work of someone with the same experience and equipment as me. The secret is the final 5%. Invest yourself into your craft 100% - no less. Give it everything you can. Pour into it until there is nothing more you can do. 

That's when a good video becomes a great one. That's when a shoddy logo becomes a cultural icon. That's when a student level short story becomes a work of linguistic art. That's when - no matter how much experience you have or equipment you work with - you make something wonderful. 

Someone will always have better tools than you, more intelligence, more refined technique, more training, but you can be the most thoughtful. You can't overestimate the value of thoughtfulness.

In other words, 100% doesn't mean perfection. It means 100% effort. All the thoughtfulness and care you can give.

Give the final 5%. Don't quit when it's good enough (what does that even mean?). Make it great. 


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