As much as we would like to convince ourselves otherwise, perfectionism is not about having high standards or a keen eye for detail. Instead it’s like pretty much everything else we do that screws up our creative life— it’s really about dealing with our fears and trying to protect our fragile ego.
I used to think that being a perfectionist was just one of the those things you said during a job interview when they ask you to reveal something negative about your personality or something you need to work on.
In fact, perfectionism is right up there with “caring too much” and “working too hard” as one of those empty ego-stroking answers that we often say to impress others.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have high creative standards and strive for excellence, but that’s not really what any of this is about—perfectionism is a problem because it fools us into believing that it’s good for us.
It’s kind of like multi-tasking because we have been fooled into believing we’re doing it for the right reasons, but in reality it’s holding us back.
We think that we are perfectionists because we have extremely high standards and we refuse to do average work–but that’s the trap. Because in order to reach that goal of perfect, we convince ourselves that there is always more work to do. We need to do more research, buy more supplies, or learn new skills. We have to redo, revise, and re-edit our work until we get everything just right.
Perfectionism doesn’t just stall you current project, however, it can prevent you from starting any new projects as well. Being a perfectionists is a process where we are constantly second-guessing ourselves and doubting by looking for the faults in our work.
The idea behind perfectionism implies we always know what’s best for ourselves and our creative work.
In other words we fool ourselves into believing that we are the only ones who know what exactly our work needs, when in reality that is the role of getting feedback from others.
Although this type of self-evaluation may seem like a way of confirming our own high standards, it’s often just another way of stalling and keeping ourselves from moving forward. We end up in a state of creative paralysis because there is no way we can possibly live up to our own lofty expectations.
So we find ways to put things off a little longer, all in the name of being perfect.
So how do we know if we are suffering from creative perfection-itis?
1.) We wait for ideal conditions or situation to get started
Perfectionists like to make sure they have all the tools and skill necessary before getting started. It’s like when you are cooking, you want to make sure that you have all of the necessary ingredients before you get started. And while that may be true, there is a significant difference between cooking a pot of chili and writing a novel.
After all when we’re cooking a particular dish, we know exactly what the final result should be. However when we are writing a story or painting a canvas, we often won’t know where it’s going to end up until we get there—and the only way we’re ever going to do that, is by getting started.
In the end perfectionism is little more than procrastination dressed up as good intentions. It gives us the excuse we need to put off doing the work until everything is just right.
2.) We get lost in the details
One of the tricks of perfectionism is that because we are never quite ready, there is always something else we need to do in order to “prepare” before we can get started.
It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of details in the name of research. We need more information. More background. More knowledge. More details. After all who is going to fault us for wanting to learn what we need to know in order to do our creative work. No one is ever going to stop us and tell us we know enough to get started.
Whether we are writing a book, painting a picture, or recording a song — there are infinite ways we can put it off until we are “ready” so we busy ourselves with the details and learn far more than we will ever need to know to do our work.
It’s not only that taking the time to collect all of these extra details can keep us from doing our creative work, but it can also overwhelm us and make us lose our focus.
After spending all of this time learning and gathering so much information, it can be hard to know what what exactly we should leave out. How do you narrow it down to the essential parts without becoming completely overwhelmed? We end up with too much information and too many options. We simply don’t know what to do with it all, so we often end up doing nothing at all.
3.) In the world of perfect there is no finish line
Perfectionism not only prevents us from starting our project, but it can also prevent us from finishing it.
How many times have you said to yourself, “Just one more edit” or “Just one more coat and then I’ll be done” but for whatever reason we can never seem to finish. There is always one more thing to do on our way to perfect.
This ends up, of course, just one more excuse we don’t have to declare that our work is finished and has somehow failed (once again) to reach our ideal vision of perfection. So we put it off, we revise, we edit, and we stall.
We don’t want to be finished and be forced to release it into the wild and allow the critics (and anyone else who doesn’t understand our creative vision) to devour it and tear it apart. As perfectionists we always like to say that “we are our own worst critic” and although that may be true, we are not the only one. We know that when we finish a project and are willing to let it go into the wild we are forced to face our fear of rejection. The same fear of rejection that our perfectionism was trying to protect us from in the first place.
It turns out that perfectionism is not a badge of honor, but only another way to avoid confronting our fears.
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.