Perfectionism is not a virtue

I often grieve the many ideas I’ve had that have never come to fruition. I recall the blissful moments when inspiration has tapped me on the shoulder and I’ve responded initially with exhilaration at the thought of interacting with a new idea. I clear space to bring this idea to life and just as a project gains momentum something happens to dampen my euphoria. Perfectionism steps in.

Image by Roanne Copin

If creativity grants one the freedom to play, think, and experiment, then perfectionists have a struggle on their hands when it comes to finishing a project. Each time perfectionism announces itself, I’m left bewildered as I sift through my working memory in a desperate attempt to retrieve the fleeting inspiration that left me almost as quickly as it appeared.

Attention to detail

Shouldn’t we aim for perfection?’ My inner critic muses while I sit there with my head in my hands and then retrace the steps I took when said inspiration struck.

While parameters can exist for particular tasks, for instance an exam, whereby criteria indicates a standard for a ‘perfect’ score, there are many instances where perfection lacks clear parameters.

Perfection is as subjective as beauty. In the context of creative domains, ‘perfect’ is a burdensome adjective. Author Elizabeth Gilbert is familiar with the dangers of allowing perfectionism to get in the way of creativity, as she explains:

“Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes – but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.”

If one can care deeply about their work, create a quality product, and see a project through to the end despite battling with perfectionism, it is a noble accomplishment.

Procrastination

Perfectionism is one of the biggest barriers to creativity. In his book Finish What You Start, Peter Hollins lists some psychological roadblocks that inhibit our progress; laziness, lack of discipline, fear of judgement, rejection, failure, insecurity, and lack of self-awareness.

Temptations and distractions are everywhere and managing one’s time effectively is a challenge when there are competing deadlines to attend to. Endlessly planning for a task is a form of procrastination which tricks us into thinking we’re being productive, as Hollins explains:

“We are somehow exceptionally talented at delaying work until we absolutely need to do it, until the very last minute. In fact we’re so talented at delaying work that we could convince others (and even ourselves) that we’re already working even when we’re not.”

In my article Self-discipline: realise your future self I explored the brain’s resistance to arduous tasks in contrast to its desire for immediate gratification. Perfectionism can come across as a nurturing friend with your best interests at heart, but it can talk you out of taking leaps that would necessitate your growth as a person and development as a creative.

You have to find the courage to discern whether or not fear is cleverly disguising itself in the form of perfectionism. In many cases, a task that is done is better than one that is perfect.

Art is never finished

Perfectionists often keep themselves locked into thinking that their creative piece is never finished and that there is always more work to be done.”

– Lilian Wissink, author

I might just add another stroke of paint here, this lyric isn’t quite right, that font is too big, that’s not the final edit…yet. Have you said this, or a variation thereof, to yourself? Have you heard other people talk like this? It can be interpreted as taking pride in one’s work but deadlines should still be adhered to. If you don’t have a deadline imposed on you, it may be useful to set one for yourself, especially if you are a perfectionist.

Gilbert describes perfectionism’s most evil trick as its ability to disguise itself as a virtue. “In job interviews, for instance, people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point – taking pride in the very thing that is holding them back from enjoying their fullest possible engagement with creative living.”

While I think one should not release any work one would not be content with putting their name to, it’s easier to take this notion too far. If one gets caught up in laborious tasks that add no real value to a work then the time that could have been used to realise another idea will be wasted on so-called ‘finishing touches’.

When inspiration strikes, honour it by setting a clear deadline, finish more of your creative tasks and experience the ‘perfect’ state of accomplishment.

2 Thoughts

    1. Thanks for your comment Meg. Yes, everyone has imperfections but perfectionism is a very real personality trait which can get in the way of a person’s productivity.

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