What Steve Jobs’ perfectionism has taught me
It truly is an oddity. It’s become a talking point among friends. A joke at first. I can’t buy a couch. And it’s come to hold up a mirror to a few fundamental sadnesses about life.
Indeed, I’ve never owned a couch. I’ve inherited old ones when I’ve moved into the various rentals I’ve traipsed between over the years. I bought my first apartment late last year. I’ve been sitting in it… on the floor. Actually, on my yoga foam roller on a bit of old carpet a friend passed onto me. I work from this set-up. I meditate here. I eat my meals from the one – yes one – chair I have (I sit on the floor, eat from the chair). I’ve lived like this for seven months. And, yes, I know it’s sad.
I struggled to know what it is that stalls me from buying a couch. Or a dining table. Or chairs. I’ve been trying to find a sustainably made one that ticks off all My Simple Home boxes. My criteria is tight; I’m a painful perfectionist who can’t buy a pair of undies until I know the manufacturing history and carbon mileage of them and determined that they’re the best design on the market such that my rare purchase of a new pair of undies (I own eight pairs currently) is not wasted.
But that’s only part of it. It’s this too: to buy something so… committed (THERE, I SAID IT)… is a big deal. Couches are commitments. Right now, I can pack up and take off with a moment’s notice. In fact, I’m about to next week. I don’t own a fridge either (I bought a place with an inbuilt one). With a couch (and a fridge) you can’t fly. At least it feels that way.
So since it’s a Big Deal, and reflects more than just seating apparatus, the potency of my couch-buying decision is magnified. And, of course, the more potent, the more I freeze. I can’t make a decision because it’s come to matter so much.
We stall on decisions when there’s fear. Indecision flags fear for us.
And so it reared it’s head: commitment niggles me. When things niggle me, I bubble-wrap them in perfectionism. No one can accuse me of being scared of commitment when I can just turn around and and say I’m merely being a perfectionist. And so my fear can continue, unchallenged a little longer. I’m seductive like that.
And then I came across the above picture of Steve Jobs in his lounge room. A concerned friend sent it to me. It could be me. That’s my lounge below.
I dug around to find out the genesis of the photo. I’m sharing it, and pivoting this post from it, because it’s interesting. In Jobs’ biography, author Walter Isaacson explains that for most of his life Steve Jobs lived a spartan lifestyle, his home furnished with the barest essentials: a chest of drawers and a mattress in his bedroom, a card table and some folding chairs in his dining room for when guests came over.
He was such a perfectionist and obsessive that…he couldn’t buy a couch! Here’s what his wife Laurene said in the book: “We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years. We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of a sofa?’”
And in a 1996 Wired article Jobs discussed buying a washing machine:
“We didn’t have a very good one so we spent a little time looking at them. It turns out that the Americans make washers and dryers all wrong. The Europeans make them much better – but they take twice as long to do clothes! It turns out that they wash them with about a quarter as much water and your clothes end up with a lot less detergent on them. Most important, they don’t trash your clothes. They use a lot less soap, a lot less water, but they come out much cleaner, much softer, and they last a lot longer.”
“We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make,” Steve continued. “We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. We’d get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design.”
I do this. With dinner plates. Running shoes. Holiday destinations. Except the debate is in my head because I don’t have a wife. And I’d not want to subject anyone else to the torture of my perfectionism. And fear. And truth be known, when friends do raise the issue, I snap at them. Dismiss the issue. Barge forward onto another topic. More bubble-wrap.
In the hospital at the end of his life, apparently Jobs churns through 67 nurses before he finds three he likes. “At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated,” Isaacson writes. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked.
I read this now and it leaves me immeasurably sad. Some people don’t ever get to puncture their bubble-wrap. They flog themselves stupid all their lives to be positioned such that no one will ever be able to challenge them on their fear. Jobs could churn through 67 nurses because he was rich and powerful and a known “perfectionist”.
Ultimately, though, perfectionism and indecision masks the fear we’re not enough on our own.
Do you reckon indecision and perfectionism flags stuff for you? I do rather love the way it expresses itself in different people…always quirky!