How to Outsmart Perfectionism

by Barbara Martin

in How to Tips

Deep in Chapter 8 of Eric Maisel’s Coaching the Artist Within, we come across a nugget on identifying and dealing with perfectionism. Maisel argues that we are culturally conditioned to value a high gloss perception of perfection over reality. Reality, of course, includes both glossy and matte, highs and lows, successes and failures, perfection and imperfection, the good and the not so good or, okay, let’s just call it bad.

Looks Count!
From Hollywood movies (and starlets) to the supermarket produce section to the job interview, we are taught that a perfect appearance is to be valued over substance. Accordingly, we expect and accept nothing less than the superficially perfect. We admire beautiful but tasteless tomatoes, dumb movies with supreme production values, and unwearable couture. We have internalized this value system.

Good and Bad, Perfect and Imperfect
All this warped surface valuing and believing means we haven’t learned to honor the creative process in a realistic way. We insist on instant (superficial) face value perfection right off the bat — or assume it’s no good.

But that’s silly. Of course we are going to write/compose/draw some absolute dreck along with the good stuff and the occasional inspired bit: It’s to be expected, it’s part of the process. That’s why we develop skill, learn to edit, and eventually use our own judgement as to what is good enough.

“Practice makes perfect.”
“Learn to walk before you run.”

Old clichés, yes, but there is at least some truth there and you know it. The question is, how far to push for the perfect — and does it matter? This automatically brings up how we deal with criticism, self doubt, why we get anxious and procrastinate, and any other aspect of self sabotage we can think of.

You Can’t Edit Without a First Draft
The key idea here is that we can edit later, but only if we accept the words/paint/notes/moves as they come – good/bad/indifferent/quote unquote perfect – and put them down on the page/canvas/keyboard/film in the first place!

Feeling Free: Internal Permission to Be Bad

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. ~Salvador Dali

Sometimes we realize that perfection is an unattainable ideal and are willing to simply aim for good or “good enough.” But this, too, can cause a perfectionist stall or block. If we are only willing to accept and produce “good” stuff, we may never start! How’s that for self sabotage?

Creative people must recognize and accept that the route to the “good” stuff is by being willing to put up with the “bad” stuff, too. They come together, Maisel says, “by eternal law.”

How to Avoid Perfectionism
When creative people accept this eternal law and allow ourselves to perform badly or do bad work, we gain the freedom to create regardless of quality. If you can accept that you are allowed to produce bad stuff, then you are free to produce whatever you produce at this moment: be it good, bad, indifferent, spectacular – it’s ALL good.

Perfectionism can’t touch you if you are mentally ready to produce results all over the quality spectrum.

Is the Perfectionist inside You?
Think about what’s holding you back. Is it there a little perfectionist inside you scrambling with your creative process? So, honestly, which “mistake” scares you the most?

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{ 3 comments }

Pace July 1, 2009 at 5:19 pm

One thing that helps me avoid perfectionism is to remember the usual error. What I think is perfect is not necessarily what other people will think is perfect. So I’m spending all this time making my work Pace-perfect, but that has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO with whether it will be Barbara-perfect or Joe-perfect or Trish-perfect. Remembering the usual error helps me realize that once I’ve made something Pace-good or Pace-great, there’s no point in refining it further without feedback from others, because any further refinements will be me-specific.

writingreading July 2, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Wow – I love this post! I am definitely going to have to come back and explore some more. That advice about “To edit, you must have a first draft” is perfect. Thanks for this info. Sounds like a fabulous book! I will be back!

Barbara Martin July 2, 2009 at 8:53 pm

@Pace — yes, that is one version of perfectionistic, in my mind that’s the kind where we chase an everdiminishing yet infinite path toward the goal of true perfect, which of course we can never reach, so at that realization, we must continue tweaking and tweaking and tweaking but be forever frustrated! And the piece is never ever “complete”…. and you have a great way to avoid it!

@writingready hey thanks! Maisel has written a number of books on creativity.

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