Man About Town

My name is Neilan Tyree, and I’m … I’m a perfectionist. How ’bout you? Let’s find out by taking a little true/false quiz:

• The world is spinning out of control. I’m surrounded by idiots.

• If I can’t do something right, I’d rather not do it at all.

• This is too important to trust to anyone else. I’d better do it myself.

• They just don’t get it.

• I’m not difficult. Just exacting.

Answer “true” to any of those? All of them? If so, we could probably start a support group. But we’d never agree on the perfect time and place, so … forget it.

I’ve been thinking about ideals and standards a lot lately. Best practices, raising the bar, increasing the firepower. Blah, blah, blah. And the truth is, maybe perfectionism ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

We have every reason to be concerned about diminishing standards. But we should keep those concerns in check or before you know it, we’ll be howling at the moon like wild-eyed prophets in the desert.

My friend Jeff Streeper frequently cites an example from horseback riding regarding the dangers of rigidity. If you keep your arms locked, rather than bending them, you are actually at your most vulnerable. Doesn’t that apply here as well?

I was weaned on the old Chiat/Day maxim that “good enough is not enough.” Maybe. But these days, “better” can be pretty damn good. And often, good enough is just great.

This message was driven home to me recently about as subtly as if a grand piano had been tossed off the Empire State Building and landed slap on my head. I’m quite a perfectionist about things that matter to me—including, for example, my favorite piece of theatre: Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.

I don’t just know the songs. I whistle the entire freaking overture in the shower. And I don’t just have the original cast album. I have every disc from every production ever mounted. I take it pretty seriously.

So, of course, I was expecting perfection from the current Broadway production. But not for long.

I made it through the overture without incident, but it wasn’t long before my hypercritical faculties kicked in. “Whoa! This is a reunion of showgirls? These gals can’t sing!” “What are those chorus girls wearing? Hell, they should have borrowed the ones from the Paper Mill Playhouse!” On and on I ranted. I fled at intermission and was soon shouting into the night in the concrete desert of 44th St. and 5th Avenue. Like a mad prophet. Ugh.

I was right to be angry, wasn’t I? This wasn’t the Follies I knew at all. It was like a movie in my head that plays and plays. And it wasn’t just the bad things I remembered; it was the whole damn show. Which. Wasn’t. Perfect!

Hold it, I thought. I’d waited three-quarters of my life to see this show return to Broadway, and now that it was here, I was its most vocal critic? Me? Whoa, indeed.

I learned a few things instantly:

• Don’t go to previews, especially not the first one.

• Don’t sit in the balcony. Ever.

• Don’t be such an asshole.

Newly humbled, I decided to give it another shot. This time around I was fifth row, dead center—eager and enthusiastic, but without expectations. (Those are what get us in trouble, you know.) The result was one of the best experiences I’ve had on Broadway in years.

Afterward, it occurred to me that demanding perfection had almost robbed me of an exciting experience. By dismissing my preconceived notions, however, I was finally able to really see and enjoy the show.

How often are we guilty of this kind of thing? If the client doesn’t produce our work exactly as we present it, does the work then suck? Does the client? If my team doesn’t deliver their work to me exactly as I’d imagined it, should I fire them all? If my boss doesn’t appreciate my every idea—and congratulate me daily—should I quit?

I saw another Broadway show a few weeks later that dealt with this very topic. And I encourage anyone who has anything to do with creativity to run and see A Class Act.

It’s a musical about the pain-in-the-ass songwriter Ed Kleban, who wrote the lyrics to the most famous musical of the last 30 years: A Chorus Line. He reminded me a lot of … a lot of you: brilliant, unbelievably successful. And a pain in the ass. (OK, he reminded me of me, too.)

Mr. Kleban never enjoyed another success after A Chorus Line because he remained a perfectionist—and a pain in the ass.

My name is Neilan Tyree, and I’m a recovering perfectionist. How ’bout you?