Getting It Right

Two big things happened to me recently: I quit my day job to become an indie iOS developer, and I became a father.

Needless to say, I now have a lot to think about.

In-between diaper changes and bottle feedings, I’ve been wrestling with some hard design challenges for my next app. Every day this week, I worked late into the evening, pushing the design to a point that seemed like the right solution, only to wake up the next day and see that yesterday’s solution wasn’t right yet.

It’s taxing to work like this, but rewarding. Vonnegut’s advice to young writers was to work passionately on a sonnet for a week, polishing it more every day, then to tear it up and toss the pieces into seven different trashcans. Your best work today will not be as good as your best work tomorrow.

I have my dad to thank for my capacity for this kind of work, such as it is. If I had had a different upbringing, I would likely have a bad habit of settling for my first attempts. My dad taught me the importance of getting it right.

The stories about my dad’s tireless attention to detail could fill a book. He pushes himself to do his best in everything, even in menial tasks around the house. He mows the lawn as carefully as he composes music. He’s a pianist and a music/drama teacher. Somewhere he learned how to draw well, too. I think he taught himself. When he directed Little Shop of Horrors at a local high school, he ordered an enormous collection of realistic plant monster puppets. They arrived in an 18-wheeler. The biggest one filled the stage and took five people to operate it. It was the coolest thing many of those kids had ever done.

My dad pushed me as hard as he pushed himself. When I was in high school, my chemistry teacher had us create trading cards for the periodic table of the elements. Everybody had to pick an element and make three trading cards for it. I picked phosphorus because it glows in the dark. I stayed up very late the night it was due. I designed the cards with our Power Mac. They looked like dossiers from the X-Files. They had glow-in-the-dark stickers and distressed paper textures. It was 1996 and they were awesome.

My dad saw what I was making and took me down to Kinkos to get them laminated. It was after midnight when we got there. He showed me how to get them laminated thickly, like drivers’ licenses. We even rounded the corners. The cards were impenetrable. I kept thumbing my fingers over the edges of the laminated cards, admiring their thickness, grateful to my dad for showing me how to make them.

Then the unthinkable happened. On the way home, one of us noticed that I had misspelled phosphorus. I spelled it “phosphorous,” which is the adjectival form.

“No one would notice,” I said to my dad.

“No. We’re going to get it right,” he replied.

He sent me back to the Power Mac and I re-edited the design and reprinted them. I applied a new set of stickers in just the right places. Then my dad took me back to Kinkos where we laminated the replacement set of cards, doing all the work over again, even rounding the corners. It was after 4:30 AM when we finally got home.

The second set were even better than the first. I got a good grade on them. But the satisfaction of an A+ paled in comparison to the reward of getting it right.

If nothing else, I want to share this lesson with my own son. It’s the greatest lesson my dad ever taught me: always do your best.

|  1 Aug 2013