If it can’t be perfect, why would I even begin? — Mark
I start something, but then I tinker with it forever and never finish it. — Lauren
I just get so frustrated because I know it’ll never be as perfect in real life as it is in my mind. — John
Perfectionism is an insidious demon that must be fought with every weapon you’ve got. Here’s what’s so tricky about perfectionism: it (sort of) turns procrastination into a virtue.
Because it’s good to have high standards, right?
And it’s good to expect the best from yourself, right?
We want to make things that are beautiful, unique, extraordinary...
And then you crumble under the pressure you’ve put on yourself and never create anything at all. But it’s not your fault — it’s your damned high standards.
Perfectionism also keeps you from noticing the great things that you create effortlessly. By keeping your focus on that which is hard, unattainable, or impossible to execute, you fail to give yourself credit for that which is easy and fun. While you’re busy struggling with the idea that you need to be a great painter (all the while not painting), you might miss out on a brilliant career as a caricaturist. Your frustrated desire to write the perfect novel can prevent you from seeing your potential as a lyricist.
This is the worst kind of snobbery. Disdaining your own gifts is as cruel as disdaining your own children.
Not Good Enough?
My friend and client Patti Frankel once confided to me that she had three unpublished novels sitting in her desk drawer. Three! And they languished there because even though she had gotten good feedback from other writers and even from a literary agent, she felt that the warm, funny, romantic novels that she loved to write weren’t “significant” enough.
“I’m really smart,” she told me. “And I thought that smart women were supposed to get their PhDs and help save the world, you know? But I don’t want to save the world that way. I just want to write books that make people feel good.” She had thought that it was more important for her to slog along completing a PhD that, it turned out, she didn’t care very much about.
So after our first session she made the radical decision to let it go, two courses and half a dissertation away, and to give her heart and soul to the novel that was so dear to her. She just let me know that she’s finished it and is now working with an editor.
Quick — think of the most extreme, avant-garde artist you can name. now think of a boring, middle-of-the-road artist. If there’s room in the world for both of them to be famous, there is certainly room for you.
Once you actually begin working, the first thing you will need to surrender is your idea about who you are and what your work is about.
You will also need to quit waiting to feel ready. To quit waiting for it to be perfect. To quit your big ideas about what’s good and what isn’t and what people will pay for and what they won’t.
Don’t Be Afraid to Get a C
Some years ago I was suffering from some fairly extreme anxiety. One of the ways the anxiety manifested was that I felt like I was being constantly graded. During every meal I cooked, every parallel-parking job, every audition, every everything, I felt like someone, somewhere, was monitoring my every move and keeping track in a big notebook about how well or, more often, how poorly I was executing my life.
So I decided that if I could not disabuse myself of the idea that I was being graded, then I would just try to get a C — which is the grade you get for showing up and doing the work. Not doing the work better than everyone else, not doing extra-credit work — just showing up and doing the work.
There are two more reasons you can afford to get a C. One, your version of a C is probably everybody else’s version of an A. Two, if you get your work out there and then find that it needs to be made more perfect, well, then, you’ll improve it, right? That’s how you roll.
Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist
Perfectionism would be so great...if only it worked.
Seriously: if you could work and work and think through every detail and really focus on achieving perfection and then have everything actually come out perfectly — that would be so great. But you can’t. It doesn’t work.
And you know what else would be cool? If you could achieve perfection in advance. You know — if you could think through every potential problem in advance and then start the project with the certainty that it was the perfect project. But you can’t. It doesn’t work.
Or what if, by hanging on to old criticisms about your past work, you could somehow make the work better? You know, someone praises you for some work you did in the past and you respond (either out loud or to yourself) by remembering every little thing that was wrong with it. If only remembering those things could somehow undo them, then the project could be magically revised to be perfect. But you can’t. It doesn’t work.
I Am NOT a Perfectionist! Really?
For years I resisted the word perfectionist. I thought that it sounded simplistic and anal-retentive. It reminded me of shallow, appearance-obsessed people running white gloves over lamp shades and endlessly rearranging boring long-stemmed red roses in cut-crystal vases.
Perfectionism sounded like a hobby for people who didn’t have anything better to do with their time.
But at the same time, I found myself exhibiting the following behaviors:
1. Endlessly thinking everything all the way through and not being able to stop.
2. Not really trusting anyone else to do things properly.
3. Feeling that if I couldn’t succeed, I probably shouldn’t try.
4. Being convinced that other people were constantly judging me and my work — and often finding me coming up short (i.e., feeling I was being graded).
5. Needing other people to notice and appreciate how hard I was working.
6. Being unwilling to start something unless I was pretty sure I could rely on the outcome.
7. Having unrealistic, if not impossible, expectations of myself.
8. Having unrealistic expectations of what I could accomplish in a given period.
Now, let me point out that many of the above behaviors are exhibited by almost everyone at one time or another, and that for artists, well, “achieving the impossible” is practically our favorite pastime. Some of the greatest works of all time were the result of some artist pouring jaw-dropping amounts of money, time, energy, and life force into a project everyone else thought was totally crazy.
A Few Words in Favor of Obsession
From time to time you, like every artist, ought to have the opportunity to dive full-on into a project that consumes you. To take on a project that scares you, that requires every last little bit of your energy, your concentration, and your excellence. That pushes you and your abilities to their very limits and forces you to transcend those limits. To exhaust yourself. To go a little nuts for your art. To live, eat, breathe, and dream it. And to see what happens.
For many, that opportunity came when we were in our twenties, and it’s a darn good thing, too, because that kind of single-minded energy is easier to summon (and much easier to recover from) when a body is young. But it’s worth trying it again sometime. Applying the full force of your artistry to a project when you’ve got some years of experience behind you can be a truly revelatory experience.
Figuring out how to work moderately and also successfully is a problem worth solving.
©2014 by Samantha Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day
by Sam Bennett.
In Get It Done, a beloved teacher and successful writer, actor, and comedian helps you get a handle on your own particular — even peculiar — creative process and harness your energies in positive, productive, and income-generating ways.
About the Author
Sam Bennett is the creator of the Organized Artist Company. In addition to her multifaceted writing and performance work, she specializes in personal branding, career strategies, and small-business marketing. She grew up in Chicago and now lives in a tiny beach town outside Los Angeles. Sam offers her revolutionary Get It Done Workshops, teleclasses, public speaking engagements and private consulting to overwhelmed procrastinators, frustrated overachievers and recovering perfectionists everywhere.
Watch a video with Sam Bennett: Get It Done Mini-Workshop: Investing in Yourself