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Personal Growth

Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen, and the Long Tradition of Hating Your Own Work

What happens when persistence gets curdled by perfectionism? A look at how The Boss, Franz Kafka, Woody Allen, and Darwin faced their artistic demons and published.

For over 17 months in 1974 and 1975, Bruce Springsteen agonized over the creation of his third album, “Born to Run.” When he started out, Springsteen had dreams of making the greatest rock-and-roll album the world had ever heard. But the recording process was excruciatingly slow. Springsteen spent six months alone perfecting the eponymous lead single, and when the album was finally complete, he hated it. 

Louis P. Masur, author of Runaway Dream, recounts Springsteen’s soul-searching in an excellent Slate article:

Bruce kept struggling to get on tape the sound he had in his head, and at times it seemed like he was ready to give up. Long nights at the studio ended in misery, the atmosphere tense and rancorous. To stay awake, engineer Jimmy Iovine would take a piece of gum, throw it away, and chew on the aluminum wrapping. In the end, Springsteen was miserable: “After it was finished? I hated it! I couldn’t stand to listen to it. I thought it was the worst piece of garbage I’d ever heard.”

He almost didn’t release it. But Jon Landau, who had stepped in as a producer, helped persuade him to let go. According to writer Dave Marsh, Landau called Springsteen and said, “Look, you’re not supposed to like it. You think Chuck Berry sits around listening to ‘Maybelline‘? And when he does hear it, don’t you think he wishes a few things could be [changed]? Now c’mon, it’s time to put the record out.” The album appeared in 1975, and it launched Springsteen toward mega-stardom, getting him on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus proclaimed, “It is a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on him—a ’57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records that shuts down every claim that has been made. And it should crack his future wide open.”

Since then, Springsteen has gone on to win 20 Grammy Awards. Looking back from today’s perspective, it seems shocking that The Boss would have ever battled such self-doubt.

We hear a lot of stories about artists and innovators who persevered against all odds to have their work see the light of day: mega-author J.K. Rowlings’ pile of rejection letters, Thomas Edison’s gajillion attempts to invent a light bulb, Michael Jordan being deemed too short to play on his varsity basketball team. We view persistence — and grit! — as the key to success. Yet, after a certain point, persistence has a negative outcome: tunnel vision. You’ve been in it to win it for so long, you no longer know what winning means.

Let’s take Woody Allen as another example. When Allen completed Manhattan in 1979, he was extremely dissatisfied. He recounts his thoughts at the time in Robert B. Weide’s fascinating 2011 documentary:

“When I was finished with it [Manhattan], I didn’t like the film at all. I saw it, and I spoke to United Artists at the time and offered to make a film for nothing if they would not put it out. I just thought to myself, ‘At this point in my life, if this is the best I can do, they shouldn’t give me money to make movies.’” 

Fortunately for the rest of us, Allen did not succeed in suppressing the film. Manhattan was released to significant critical acclaim, earned two Oscar nominations, and became his second biggest box office hit of all time. More than 40 films later, Manhattan is still regarded by many as Allen’s best film, and has become one of the most iconic pictures ever made about New York City.

Of course, for Allen, failure is just another part of life and an inherent part of the creative process. As he says in the documentary, “I get more pleasure out of failing in a project that I am enthused over than in succeeding in a project that I know I can do well.”

As with Manhattan and Born to Run, it seems impossible to imagine a world where Franz Kafka’s novels — The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika — aren’t part of our cultural heritage. And yet, these works, too, were almost suppressed by their author. As Elif Batuman writes in an exhaustive New York Times article on the posthumous trajectory of Kafka’s works: 

During his lifetime, Franz Kafka burned an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod.“Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” 

Fortunately, Max Brod had told Kafka that he would never do such a thing when the author had made his wishes known before his death. And rather than burning Kafka’s novels, Brod instead set out immediately to have them published. (Which resulted in its own rather Kafkaesque process for Brod, which you can read about here.)

Without Brod’s work, we wouldn’t likely have the word “Kafkaesque.” Similarly, without Alfred Russel Wallace, we might not have the word “Darwinian.” Because Charles Darwin, in a way, is part of this infamous group, too. 

Darwin started exploring the theory of natural selection almost 20 years before he published On the Origin of Species in 1859. As an NPR story explains:

By 1844 he [Darwin] had written draft language that almost perfectly parallels what would be in “On the Origin of Species” 15 years later. But he was in no rush to publish; he knew he would take a lot of heat once his ideas were loosed upon the world.

In June of 1858, Darwin had yet to publish anything when he received a letter from a fellow biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, in which Wallace shared an essay articulating his own theory of “natural selection” (although he didn’t use that term). While the history isn’t entirely clear on what Darwin’s motivations were, it seems likely that he was spurred to finally publish On the Origin of Species, which he did the following year, by Wallace — lest 20 years of work go unrecognized.


So what’s the lesson in all this? On a practical level, it may be that we all need a third party — a friend or a producer who’s truly in our corner — to keep us accountable, and make us publish, when we’ve persisted so long that we don’t have any energy left to cheerlead ourselves across the finish line. On an existential level, it may be that the difference, and the distance, between the idea and the execution is always just a little bit greater than we expect. As author Michael Cunningham has written, “The art we produce lives in queasy balance with the art we can imagine.”

How about you?

Do you have perfectionist tendencies that are holding you back?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (31)
  • junior

    It might be noted, too, that Stephen King allegedly tossed his first novel (“Carrie”) into the trash, but his wife rescued it! It seems likely King would have become famous, anyway (and “Carrie” is not considered one of his best novels), but who knows what the impact of not having that first success would have had on subsequent successes?

  • tseib

    As a writer, I know this experience well. Though my current work in marketing communication has a different goal than the open-ended creativity of books, movies, and recordings, it is always surprising to hear someone spontaneously say they liked something published with my byline that I felt was weak, cliche’, and boring upon turning it in on deadline. My next thoughts are often: They can’t know what they’re talking about / I thought they had better taste than that / if only I’d had more time / how sad that such thrown-together fluff still seems to hit the mark.

    An artist friend has it even worse. He licenses his work to appear on manufactured products, and–when receiving samples–rarely feels the manufacturing does justice to his original submission. The color, the scaling, the quality of printing, the pieces they chose, the way they put them together–something is always wrong. There is no moment of satisfaction, even if the royalties are good, or fans track him down to thank and praise him. He feels let down and misrepresented, and grimly heads back to his easel to exist in the only state where he can find peace: creating.

  • Kimberly

    I think all creators have some level perfectionist tendencies. I feel like I talk with fellow creatives about this very topic almost all the time! So we’ve started saying to each other, “just ship the darn thing.” I’m reminded of something writer Liz Gilbert said her mother says, “Done is better than good.”

    One thing that’s helped me (and as a writer, believe me, if there’s no deadline attached to something, even a single blog post can go through dozens of drafts and still be just dreadful in my eyes — so I know from not wanting to ship!) is reading what other creatives, especially writers, say about their creative process. It somehow loosens things up a bit and helps you get to working when you read famous and very well-respected creators in your same line of work talk about the process of going from drivel to divine.

    • jkglei

      I love that expression, Kimberly. Though, what I’ve heard is “done is better than perfect.” ; ) And deadlines are SUPER-important. They make you think straight:

      • Kimberly

        Agreed on deadlines! and thanks for sharing the link to that article — just read it, good stuff. : )

    • Elaine

      Visual artists also suffer from the same, often sad, perfectionist penchant. I agree with all you say, Kimberly, and it does indeed help, but only momentarily. Though it’s always a struggle, the self doubt that eventually creeps in – though it seem a hindrance and tragic side effects may occur – often creates a potentially better result.

  • Tucker Joenz

    I know I have been in this situation on a few projects. One was an independent film I wrote, directed and produced. I sat in the editing process for almost a year thinking everyday how I can make things better. I finally came to the conclusion I needed to let it go and move on.

  • Phil Smith

    I, too, struggle with Impostor Syndrome. Thanks for this encouraging article!

  • growthguided

    Absolutely Loved this article.

    Thank you for taking the time to put this together for us. The “Boss” is an incredible man who took music to beautiful heights with his strong work ethic and passion.

    It is always inspiring to hear about legends struggling through their journey before they made it on top. =)

  • ruthenium66

    And in how many other areas of life do we hold back because we think we’re not good enough or ready or different enough or at the right time? God bless every collaborator, friend, or mentor who’s said, “No, it’s good, it’s time, it doesn’t have to be perfect, you can do it, let go, jump in, wow.”

  • Kathleen Pedersen

    I wouldn’t call them perfectionist tendencies, but I did realize today that I’ve been holding back because I love what I’m doing so much that I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it any more if my work fails. But I guess holding it back is the same thing so on to success!

  • l.Wilson

    Definitely. I am afraid to fail. Actually, I have failed, and I don’t want to do it again. Or maybe I do. I just know that I can become a better writer, and that grunt work starts now. If it means I have to delay projects until I get it right, I will. But I too wait a long time before I look back at my work. It’s not that I don’t love my writings, but I wish I can change this and change that. It’s nerve-wrecking really.

  • coolduderino

    Kill your darlings right.

  • Ayse Birsel

    I loved this. Perfect timing as I try to close the distance between idea and execution. Thank you!

  • Steve Menard

    We all need cheerleaders to champion our efforts and to give us an objective perspective on our creative work.

  • Daniel Thomassin

    Bonjour;Merci beaucoup pour votre post très intéressant et plein de promesses qui encourage a perduré dans mon travail .Je vous souhaite à tous une bonne et heureuse Année;

  • erik_rodne

    trust and the accountability buddy, perfect read this morning; let go and let god.

  • melissa

    Thanks for the encouragement! A great read to get the year off to a great start!

  • TekWarrior

    Great article and very persuasive on getting my works out there, though I don’t think the Darwin example fits, as that was more a concern over backlash then feeling the work was good..

    Thanks for the great read, I’m glad you didn’t second guess publishing it… or maybe someone persuaded you to publish it – lol

  • Delmy Alvarenga

    True. Sometimes you just wear out and youn need someone that beieves in your project even when you don’t. It keeps the engines going.

  • Pat Alexander NY

    It’s encouraging to read about other struggles in the creative process. My own perfectionistic tendencies often spur me on to create multiple versions of a single project. Which then leaves me with the tortured decision of choosing a final version. At that moment it’s always great to have someone you trust put in their valuable two cents to say which they like best.

  • Natália Pereira

    Your article was so helpful to me, thank you very much 🙂

  • Nodws

    Thomas Edison did NOT invent the lightbulb

    • Michael Microphone Jones

      She said he invented “a” light bulb not “the” light bulb.

  • Yen Vietnam

    Well done!

    • 朱阳

      where are you from ,girl?我来自北京

  • RMeuk

    I’m in the same boat, took too long and ran out of steam. Man, perfectionism is a killer. Glad to know these great people went through the same 🙂

  • Bob Roach

    Creativity attracts perfectionists. But it’s the courageous ones that become successes.

    The thing is to learn to trust yourself more, pay less time and importance to perfection, and just lean into fear and embrace risk.

    James Victore (NYC graphic designer) learned to do this when he was very young.

    “What most people consider being “responsible,” —a stable job, avoiding risk, maintaining a level of security, following the rules—isn’t being responsible at all. This watered down version of responsibility requires us to abandon our talents, our unique thoughts and beliefs, and our remarkable souls— in order to become small beige shadows of ourselves. That’s not being responsible. It’s being afraid. Afraid of your talent and opinion and your own power. The world needs what you’ve got— your point of view, your light and your shameless bravery. The world needs more YOU.”

    If that inspired any readers, check out James Victore online — he even has a movement started: Cubicle Activists. Here’s the manifesto in a nutshell:

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