I recently watched a documentary on the making of Aja, the seminal work by Steely Dan. In case you’re not familiar, Steely Dan is the band name for two songwriters and musicians, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.
Even if you hate Steely Dan, this documentary is fascinating for anyone interested in music or creative work in general. Their process was much different from how pretty much everyone else did it at the time.
Specifically, Fagen and Becker worked with dozens of studio musicians, repeatedly changing out the lineup. For some records, including Aja, they recorded the same songs over and over with different musicians. In fact, in some ways Steely Dan wasn’t a band at all; it was a series of compositions that were then assembled in pieces through many hours of studio work.
For Aja in particular they were looking for something special. All of the rehearsals led to a finely tuned group of performers, who were all in top form. It was as close to perfect as possible—and then they kept working on it, making it even better.
My favorite anecdote in the documentary came from one of the rotating band members: “They went further than just perfect. They made it natural.”
Further Than Perfect
It’s not a direct analogy—and I haven’t yet made a classic rock album—but it made me think of the book tours I used to do. (Side note: my new book, Gonzo Capitalism, is coming this August. And yes I’ll be touring! More info soon.)
When I was on the road giving talks, I developed a pattern of trying to improve one thing every night. It helped that I visited a new city almost every day, so there were plenty of chances to iterate. I’m not saying it was ever perfect (far from it!) but I did get better and better.
Usually by the fourth or fifth time I gave a talk, I was able to settle in and focus on what was actually happening instead of mentally trying to remember what to say next. This is why I actually like giving the same talk over and over—instead of getting boring, it feels better and better because I’m more easily able to feel present with the audience instead of always thinking about the next thing I’m going to say.
With repetition comes comfort, which is better for both speaker and audience.
Perfect Versus “Just Ship”
One more point on the Steely Dan model: I couldn’t help but think that this method is directly contrary to the popular method of “Just ship.”
This method argues that whatever you do is never going to be perfect, so just focus on getting things out there. Do the best you can, but then move on and do something else. Don’t spend ages and ages refining something.
Most of the time, I think the “Just ship” method is superior—if for no other reason than most of the time, what you ship isn’t going to be perfect. Far from it, in fact.
Also, you don’t always know that what you’re going to ship will be a hit. Thinking back on book talks, I’m pretty sure one of my best talks ever was for my fourth book, Born for This. The talk for that one almost always went over well—yet for whatever reason, that book sold far fewer copies than the one before and the one after.
These two methods represent a natural tension in making creative work. Again, generally I prefer moving forward for the sake of progress, instead of trying to find “perfection.” There are tradeoffs to everything.
Still, there’s a time in which you want to settle in on something, go deeper, and make it as perfect as possible. Then, you want to go beyond perfect, and make it natural.