One of the greatest barriers to creativity, and - I would argue - to life itself, is fear. That fear manifests itself in many ways but one of the more destructive is the perfectionism so many of us are paralyzed by. Let’s talk about it.
Prefer to Listen Elsewhere?
Do me a favour? Would you take a moment and give this show a rating and review in iTunes.
Want More? A Beautiful Anarchy is published 3 out of 4 weeks. On the those fourth weeks you can still get your fix through On The Make, my monthly missive about the creative life. Subscribe now and I’ll make sure you don’t miss and thing, and every month I’ll draw the name of one subscribed listener and send them a signed copy of my book, A Beautiful Anarchy.
Welcome here, I’m David duChemin and this is episode 004 of a beautiful anarchy, your weekly kick in the pants to live the creative life on your terms, as deeply as you dare to go. This is the perfect episode, and by that I don’t mean it’s flawless and just can’t get any better, because God knows nothing I’ve ever created has been described that way, and this episode will be no different. No, this episode will, no doubt, be deeply imperfect, but it is about perfection, specifically about the ways in which the pursuit of that seemingly lofty goal in our work can sabotage the very work we hope to create. Let’s talk about it.
One of the greatest barriers to creativity, and - I would argue - to life itself, is fear. That fear manifests itself in many ways but one of the more destructive is the perfectionism so many of us are paralyzed by.
On the surface perfectionism sounds like one of those flaws you readily admit to because really it’s a modest way of saying, see, I’m not perfect after all, but really, I’m pretty close. Like you're admitting to being flawed like everyone else but that your particular vice is the relentless pursuit of having no vices. It’s like you’re saying, "no, really, I’m not the person you think I am. Sometimes I rescue too many kittens, or give too much money away.” Oh, me? I’m a perfectionist. Like you’re just too much of a good thing.
And you know when you stack that up against all the other crap that we sweep into the dark corners and hope no one will see, it’s pretty benign. But in the creative life, if what we’re talking about is the way we make things, and get things done, the idea of perfect and the quixotic search for it, is deeply self-sabotaging.
Perfectionism isn’t a good thing because the goal of “perfect” isn’t healthy. It’s toxic. It’s tyrannical. It demands more than most humans are capable of giving, paralyzing us in our efforts to create, to learn, to live more gracefully with the limits and foibles of who we are.
Forgive me for putting it this way, but far from being a noble thing, perfectionism is the bastard love child of a protestant work ethic and the fact that we celebrate the works of artistic genius or wildly prolific people but never acknowledge the always messy process responsible for that work.
We are told, if not by others then frequently by ourselves, that “Unless we can create that brilliant thing, and unless we can make it perfect, don’t bother.” We have been taught from a young age that the goal, is perfection, that no matter what we are doing it can - and should - always be better. The rough edges should always be sanded.
What we forget in the pursuit of this impossible, and distinctly non-human goal is that almost everything starts ugly. Babies, and I know I’m going to get flack for this, they start ugly, and if you can’t get on board with that you must at least admit they start incomplete, not remotely what they will become. Our first efforts at learning a new language begin very ugly. I started yoga this year in an effort to hold back the stiffness that comes with age, and I’m here to tell you it is the ugliest damn yoga you’ve ever seen. In fact everything to which I have set my hand in life has been ugly at the start.
We too often forget that for even the most talented people, with the exception of those rare prodigies who I feel quite certain aren’t listening, for everyone else any good thing is almost always a result of a long, slow refinement of something that almost always starts ugly.
And the problem with perfectionism is that it makes a god of the flawless and an outcast of the flawed, and the imperfect. Right from the beginning it says efforts and results that don’t work the first time, that don’t immediately live up to our expectations, should be discarded. And after a while we just stop trying, because it's not long before we learn that we nearly never get it right on the first try. We just figure we’re not good at that. So we give up.
Can you imagine walking into a Spanish class and quitting after the first hour because, well, I’m just not good at Spanish? Of course you’re not good at Spanish! In fact at this point you probably suck at Spanish. That’s why you’re taking the class. To learn it. And when we discard our efforts as imperfect when in fact they are not meant to be final products but needed lessons that will equip us to make, or do, something better with time, we guarantee our failure, failure to learn, to become, to one day make something great, something truly us, which - I would argue - is a much healthier goal than perfect. Not only healthier but attainable.
Before we beat the word “perfect” into the ground completely, though, there is a meaning to the word that we often forget. Sure, it can mean “flawless,” but it can also mean “done.” Completed. Signed. Shipped. Put out into the world to be loved for what it is.
Our desire for a flawless and unblemished kind of perfection gets in the way of—and so often prevents us from—accomplishing the other kind of perfection: done.
For me, the difference in the two ideas is this: striving for perfection of the first kind means others get to say whether it is or isn’t. Others get to weigh in on what the flaws are and how grievous they might be. People you never met get to say if you’ve accomplished what you’ve worked so hard for. They will inspect it for a lack of flaws, based on god only knows what criteria (they won’t be yours), completely neglecting the content of what you’ve made or what you’re trying to say.
Defining perfect as done means you get to say so. Only you get to say it’s done. Complete. Warts and all. Rough edges. And no one gets to take that from you.
And what’s beautiful about that perspective is that it’s incredibly empowering. It places the standard for my work into my own hands and allows me to embrace who I am, and where I am as an artist, and to aim high but according to my own vision.
The Japanese have a concept that honours imperfection, brokenness, and decay called wabi-sabi. There’s an implicit belief that a thing gets more beautiful as it gets scarred from use and imbued with its own story. That’s my own imperfect understanding of wabi-sabi; it too is probably rough around the edges, but I find it beautiful nonetheless.
And before we run too far to the other end of the spectrum, and just cast off all standards of excellence and good taste, rejection of the obsessive pursuit of perfection is NOT an endorsement of sloppy, lazy work or a rejection of excellence of craft; perfection and excellence are not the same things. Nor are perfection and authenticity even remotely related.
Wabi-sabi seems to be a formal way of embracing that. A way of saying something can be done and can be excellent not only despite the flaws—but because of them. In fact, it’s the nicks and scratches, the dents and mistakes, in ourselves and in what we make that make us and our art, unique. One of a kind. By definition they are part of the personality of both the artist, and the art.
Think about every great story, for example. The perfect situation in life, the one in which we want something, perhaps we want the love of our life to reciprocate our love and live happily ever after. In the very unlikely event that it happens just like that, without challenge, struggle, conflict, or detours of any kind, we end up with, yes maybe, the perfect situation. But it is FAR from the perfect story. The quality and strength of story is all in the quality of its conflict: the challenges the protagonist has to overcome, the risks she has to take. And in the best stories there is much to risk. In the epic stories of our age, and for thousands of years, the hero has almost always nearly lost it all, and often because of some flaw in themselves. But it is also often that flaw that makes them who they are, the obverse side of the two-sided coin that we all are.
What I’m trying to do is re-frame my own thinking about perfection, not only to resign myself to the reality that I will never achieve it but to learn - and re-learn- that it’s not something I want to achieve in the first place. It has no place in me or what I create, and no place in how I create it. And if it does it’s only because I’ve re-defined it to mean, not flawless, but complete. Done. Thinking about it otherwise has only ever harmed my thinking, my art, my relationships, and anything else that’s good in my life.
And contrary to its disguise as a hard-working value, I’ve come to see my own perfectionism as laziness. It’s cowardly and allows me to abdicate my responsibility to finish my work. It gives us a noble-sounding excuse for never shipping and facing all the fears associated with that. The fear of rejection, being misunderstood, or just judged to be anything but my best work.
It’s an unwillingness to do the work and see where it goes and wrestle with the nuances, the doubts, and the detours that are not just difficult parts of the creative life, but necessary parts. Because it’s in wrestling with those things, with whatever skill our craft gives us, that our work becomes what it is.
Perfectionism is a childish response, itself imperfect, incomplete. It pouts in the corner when it can’t get something done “right” the first time and so it never learns the lessons of craft and character that come from wrestling the muse to the ground and making something of nothing, over and over again.
Perfectionism will stop us before we get to the good stuff, which is inevitably a little on the ugly side long before it shows signs of promise. Ironically (assuming you choose to accept the same re-definition of perfection as I did years ago), perfectionism will stop us from ever getting to perfect. To complete. Done. And until it is finished, no work of art can be evaluated by anyone—not even you.
I wonder, how many projects have you stalled on or given up too soon because the start was messy and contained no hints of the perfection you hoped for?
How many times have you shied away from sharing your work because you or someone else didn’t consider it perfect and therefore wasn’t good?
How many times have you questioned your process and your progress but it felt like things were getting worse before they might get better?
The lesson here, if there is one single take away, is this: don’t write it off before it’s finished. Don’t let the desire for something perfect stop you from making something that is unique, that has personality, that is alive. Don’t listen to the voices that tell you to stop. Because you’re not there yet. Making art, and living artfully, is a process. It always starts ugly. Perfect doesn’t hold a candle to persistent.
I want to punctuate this with a story I read in a book called Art & Fear, by Ted Orland and David Bayles, a book, by the way, that should be required reading for anyone that has ever made, or wanted to make, something. The authors tell a story about a ceramics teacher who divides her class into two halves at the beginning of the year.
She tells the first half that they will be graded entirely on one final piece submitted at the end of the year. Just one.
She tells the other half that their final grade will rest entirely on how many pieces of pottery they create in a year. Make as many as you can, she says. What is interesting, and relevant to this discussion is this: at the end of the year it wasn’t the students that had been tasked with making the best pieces that did so, but those assigned to make the most amount of pottery that also created the best pottery.
If you want to make good art, no matter what that is, you must make a lot of bad art. You must be unafraid to make a lot of bad art. Imperfect art. You must be willing, even eager to make some of the ugliest damn art you’ve ever made, because it is that effort that will take you one step closer to better art. It is that effort and willingness that will teach you the courage to make more, make better, art. Art that isn’t remotely perfect but more and more you.
Thank you so much for listening. Would you do me a favour? If these thoughts and stories are resonating with you, if they’re helping in some way, would you leave a review and let me know? I’d be so grateful if you’d do that, and if you’d subscribe while you’re at it. And once you’ve done that, go make something beautiful.