The Equal Odds Rule vs Perfectionism – how to succeed in art

Recently, I read an interesting article at nofilmschool about the equal odds rule. Developed by Dean Keith Simonton and based on his study of scientific papers, the rule implies that the best way to achieve success is to produce as much as possible, since there is an equal chance that anything one produces will be deemed successful. Another way to explain this rule is to say that there is no formula for success, no way to predict which of our works, projects will succeed – otherwise we could put all of our efforts and resources into the projects with the winning formula. Rather, the only way to increase our odds of success is to produce more.

Now, my understanding is that this rule assumes equal skill and effort, because otherwise it would be easily dismissable. For example, if we write a feature-length script in six days, but we develop another one in six months, the latter one should have a greater chance of success, all other things being equal.

Improving our skills must also increase our odds – we are more likely to succeed as we grow as artists. Having said that, to get better at something, we need to practice it a lot. So, here is another way in which being prolific improves our odds.

Now, the rule of equal odds goes right against the attitude of perfectionism that many successful artists exhibit. James Cameron, for example, likes to say that good is never good enough. Other film directors known for perfectionism are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and David O’Russell – for an entertaining look at these and other directors, please see “10 Most Insanely Perfectionist Film Directors”. So, what is one to conclude? Which approach is more effective?

I think you should take a different approach depending on where you are in your career. If you are starting out, you should produce as much as you can, because your focus should be on learning, not excellence.

Now, once you become proficient at something, then you can pursue excellence. You should do fewer projects, but put more effort into each one of them. Now, that does not mean that you should become a perfectionism, because it is a flaw, I think. Perfectionism is a trap that gives you diminishing returns for your efforts.

Instead, leverage your experience. By the time you become proficient, you will know what is a reasonable amount of time for a project. Allocate time, set deadlines. Just use basic time management methods. And since you will not know which one of your projects will succeed (as per rule of equal odds), you should spend an equal amount of time and effort on each project (for the same scale of a project – obviously, feature films will require more time than short films, for example).

So, the rule of equal odds applies in most cases. The one caveat is that, as your career progresses, you do want to concentrate your efforts on fewer projects. At the same time, it is safe to say that perfectionism will always hinder you, rather than help you.

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