Is perfectionism limiting your creativity?

I used to say that I'm too lazy to be a perfectionist, but that's not quite true. I'm a bit lazy, but mainly I'm just not especially detailed oriented. I get annoyed by having to focus on details for too long. Which is why I tend to not polish things forever and ever.

But that doesn't stop me from falling into the perfectionist mindset from time to time. Going deep into creativity this year, I've come face to face with my inner perfectionist, and I've had to figure out what it looks like and what the opposite is. 

This is what I've figured out.

The perfectionist mindset

Perfectionism is a whole package of ideas and tendencies. We may use all of them or just fall prey to a few. But they all come from the same place inside of us, the part that gets anxious by flaws. Read these statements and think about if they apply to you and your creative process.

1. You resist starting creative projects because you don't think you're good enough yet.

There's always one more book, one more article, one more class to take before you're ready. I mean, what's the point in starting until you're good? It'll only be a waste of time to try something before you can handle it. You'll just have to do it all over again. Better to start then instead, so you don't waste time.

Maybe you, like me, are a great student. The one who loves to study things, learn all there is to learn, watch others, understand techniques. But there will always be more to learn. If we wait to start until we know "enough" or are "good", the risk is that we'll never start because we can always get better.

2. You struggle with looking at past creations because all you can see is flaws.

You know that cringe? The oh dear this is so bad. Yeah, I know it too. 

Things you want to change everywhere. So much room for improvement. Best not to look back at all. Just avoid it completely. Hope what you make now is actually better.

3. You don't share your art because it's not good enough. you'd feel ashamed.

When it's good, then you'll share it. To share it now is just pointless. No one would care or appreciate it. So why would you even share it? Why share something you yourself know isn't good?

Worst of all, they would understand how bad you are, and would judge you for it. You wouldn't be the creative, the artist, the writer you strive to be. No. You would prove to the world that you're just another amateur. What's the point in that? 

Maybe they'd even believe that you yourself think it's good. How embarrassing. If you were to share you it, you'd really have to make sure they understand that you know that it has flaws.

4. You get upset or anxious when you're not creating at your highest level.

When you create something that you know you could do better, it's painful. It can spur a range of feelings, from frustration and anger, to sadness and anxiety. Not being at your best reminds you that you're not so good after all. Maybe your creative ability was just a phase or an exception. Maybe you've lost it and you'll never make anything good again. 

It reminds you that you really aren't good enough. 

5. You care most about the end result, and not much about the process.

When you create, the evaluation of your project is always in terms of the end result. If it was fun or developing or challenging, all of that is secondary. The point of it all is to make good art. Not to have fun or something ridiculous like that. The whole point of the process is to get to the end. 

6. You are hard on yourself when you don't create something that lives up to your standards.

Creating something you don't accept as "good enough" is personal. It makes you question yourself as a creative, as a writer or an artist. Sentences like I'll never be good enough and I suck and How could I be so damn bad!? start bouncing around in your head. 

It may even make you stop creating.

7. You never reach your own standard of good enough.

You're never really satisfied. There's always things to improve. You can never relax and say that something you made was good. You always have to find ways to get better and better and better...

You work and work and work on a project, but it's never done. You just can't seem to finish it, because there's always room for improvement. It'll probably never be done.

You'd rather give up on it than decide it's done when it's not perfect.

8. You compare your creations to everyone else's and let the comparison decide its value.

There's a constant comparing going on in your life. You look at art you wish you made, read words your wish you'd written and feel bad. Bad because you don't know if you'll ever get there. Bad because you're jealous. But when you see something less good, or something you could make, it pleases you. 

Everything you make is tested against the world of creations. Usually the value of your art is decided not to be much at all. There's so much better out there.

9. You don't try to create things you don't think you Would be good at. 

You may have a few certain things you're just a tad good at. Those are what you make. Everything that falls outside of that circle is avoided. You believe you should stay to what you know. Other forms of creativity is for other people, not for you. 

10. You believe that art that isn't at the highest level is pointless. 

When we create, we should create good things. If we don't, that art is not art at all, it's just trials that didn't live up to the test. Those things are pointless, and as established earlier, not worth sharing. If you never reach that high level, your art will never be worth anything. It may make you quit early on.

Perfectionism is the fear of being rejected

When we obsess and perfect, our focus is solely on the result. Why? Because somewhere we learned that that's what matters. Someone said to us that something we made was good, and therefore we should pursue it or share it. Then someone else told us that the competition is steep and that only the best make it in the creative world. So we learned that if we're not good enough, we will be rejected. 

Our creative callings, or talents as they are usually called, often get tied to our identity somehow. We learn that we are good at X. So we should do it. Which means that if we weren't, they wouldn't have told us to pursue it. Now we HAVE to be good at it, if we are to keep that identity. And we need the identity to be allowed to make. 

The biggest fear of our inner perfectionist is that someone will tell us that what we made sucks, and we're not a writer or artist or whatever we want to be, and that we should stop or at least spare the world our horrible creations.

A rejection like that hurts us in the oldest parts of our human brain - the part that knows for sure that rejection is incredibly dangerous because it could mean that we're left alone, behind the pack, and surviving on our own is practically impossible. The fact that our world has changed so much since this part of our brain was developed doesn't really help us.

Still, if we want to create, if we want to be writers or artists, we need to find a way to be okay with rejection. It's part of the deal. If we share something with the world, the world has the right to care or not care, like it or dislike it. We can't control the response of other people, and we shouldn't be making it for their liking anyway. We should make whatever we want to make.

But the most important thing is this: our self-worth and our permission to create has nothing to do with the result of our creative endeavors. 

Creating should not come from a place of proving ourselves, or pleasing others. That makes for scared and unauthentic art. It keeps us from developing creatively. It feeds perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a rule that makes you limit what you're allowed to make. It keeps your creative circle small and the things you share even smaller. It fixes you in place instead of letting you fly.

But this way is not the only way. We have the choice to apply another mindset. I call it the draftist mindset.

The draftist mindset

At the core of perfectionism is an obsession with the result being good enough in the eyes of other people. So there's two things we need to change here.

First, the obsession with results.
Secondly, our care for what everyone else thinks.

If we go for the opposite, we would focus on the creative process and our own voices as creatives. That's the core of what I'd like to call draftism. I call it that because when perfectionism focus on making it perfect, draftism focus on the current draft. Just working to make what we want to make, getting better draft by draft. 

To turn your focus from that inner perfectionist to a draftist mindset, try to remember these statements instead.

1. Exchange perfect for progress.

When we focus on our drafts, we focus on progress. The slow, version by version, step by step progress. Not trying to achieve perfection and especially not trying to be really good at once. Valuing every little improvement, however small.

You know the saying Practice makes perfect? I don't believe in perfect. There's no such thing. So while I like the idea behind that saying, I don't really like it. But one of the members of the Teacup Owls said it perfectly. Practice makes progress. And when it comes to getting better, progress is what matters.

2. Focus on the process.

Hand in hand with focusing on progress is to focus on the process. Not having our eyes on the price, not only reaching for the goal, but leaning into the process of it all. Searching for the joy in creating, not in having created something good. 

If your motivation is to have made good art, you'll get discouraged easily because sometimes we have to make things that are quite bad to learn new techniques. But if your motivation is the joy of creating, it will be easy to continue. Even when it's hard and uncomfortable, because we know the joy is there somewhere, behind the struggle. And those who continue, those are the ones who eventually get really good. 

3. Done is better than perfect.

I love this saying, because it helps us just decide that we're done, even when we could improve it. We can always find something to make better, but if we don't want to work on the same thing forever, shipping is necessary. Whether it's a deadline or just a sense of okay this will do, finding an end point is really important to keep moving creatively. 

4. You're allowed to have flaws.

Most of us know this, rationally, but deep down, we can still carry a belief that we need to be perfect to be accepted. Flaws are flaws for a reason, they are not what we strive for and it's not hard in our society to acquire the belief that everything other than perfect is bad.

The truth is of course that perfection is impossible and flaws are natural. Neither you nor your creative projects can or should be perfect. We are all allowed a whole range of flaws. They are what makes us human. 

5. Trial and error are your best teachers.

Perfectionism often tells us that we shouldn't make unless we're good. The other approach is to test our way towards mastery. Trial and error gives you a hands on experience that no books can give you, and they really are excellent teachers. A draftist test, tries and fails, and then learn from it. Experimenting your way to understand how the craft works and what you're good at.

6. make it for you, not for everyone.

A perfectionist wants to please everyone and that is of course impossible. Instead, starting with yourself is the most joy filled, authentic approach and it's the way to making your best art. 

Start with what you like, what you enjoy making and do more of that. Don't think so much about everyone else. If you make something you truly enjoy, I bet there's at least a bunch of people out there with the same taste as you. The trick is to find those people and focus on them. Maybe they are few, maybe they are many. But they are your audience, and those are the ones who really matter when you put your work out there.

7. There's room for us all.

I was told that the creative field is desperately competitive, that only a few succeed, but when I've actually entered the creative community, I believe it's the opposite. Maybe it was different when the gate keepers decided what was shared, but with the internet, there really is a place for us all. 

We have to work for that place to get bigger, to reach more people, but it's there if you're willing to put in the effort. I truly believe that.

8. There's beauty in imperfection.

The perfectionist hates imperfection, but art isn't about perfection. It's about life, people, the world. It's about finding the beauty in the dark, about describing a reality we see, it's about twisting and playing with the rules of our world. 

No piece of art is perfect and it's often the flaws that make them real. There's beauty in the rawness of our imperfections.

 

Before we get on with our lives and creative projects, I just want to ask you this: Which mindset do you think would help you be a braver, more joy-filled creative? I want you to choose it. Then use it, intentionally. You have the power to do that.