Undoing Perfectionism

How I overcame my perfectionism to make more, better-quality work… and became a happier person in the process

Over the course of starting my own business and finding my creative flow as an artist and maker, I have ended up learning a lot about perfectionism. It is something I’ve come to know very well – both from encountering it in myself and from seeing those around me really struggle with it. I have come to realize that perfectionism is very common, so if you spot yourself in my descriptions below, don’t worry. It’s curable.

There is a legend in the art world that goes like this…

There was a first-year pottery class that was divided into two sections. One section was asked to make one perfect pot and the other section was asked to make one-hundred pots in the same amount of time. While students in the first section were anxiously designing and redesigning their perfect pot, the other section got straight to making. They didn’t have time to waste overthinking or trying to anticipate and control the process. (A good thing given they’d never even done it before.) They just had to make.

At the end of the semester, who do you think knew more and was more skilled at pottery? The students who had spent the semester doing and redoing the same pot or the ones who had made mistakes, learned from them, and kept moving forward? I would venture to say that not only were they now more experienced, they were likely also more confident and sure of themselves.

Generally, if you’re pushing the same piece around or writing and rewriting the same thing over, you aren’t moving forward. You are stuck in a perfectionist loop.

Seeing perfectionism for what it is

A collection of small paintings done in twenty brushstrokes, or less (a inspiring idea originally from artist Nathan Fowkes)

Perfectionism can sometimes appear in different forms: a product that is never ready to ship or that never leaves the idea phase, or a website that gets done and redone over and over again. Often, it can look like trying to resolve something entirely or have it all controlled and mapped out in your mind before putting it out into the world. This stems from a need to control and from a fear of mistakes.

Trying to predict or control the outcome of everything you do is not only impossible, it stops you from putting that work out there. Two of my favourite sayings about this are “ship” (look up Seth Godin for more great thoughts around this) and “done is better than perfect”. I was critical of this second one for a long time, thinking that the quality of the work would suffer. I have found this to not be the case.

Generally, if you’re pushing the same piece around or writing and rewriting the same thing over, you aren’t moving forward. You are stuck in a perfectionist loop. Perfectionism usually stems from fear. Fear of looking silly, fear of making a mistake, fear of being embarrassed or ashamed, fear of receiving criticism or rejection. Our society and our school systems tend to be very results-oriented. We strive for grades and status – both things that reward the result over the process.

Mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. The thing is, if you are learning something new or trying to get better at something, you will inevitably make mistakes. It’s a natural part of the process. You can’t prevent mistakes, but you can teach yourself to not fear them as much. This will give you so much freedom – freedom to make lots of work, to take risks, to try new things…

Letting go of perfectionism will give you so much freedom – freedom to make lots of work, to take risks, to try new things…

You will be happier without perfectionism

My initial motivation for trying to get over my perfectionism was very simple: it was making me miserable! I felt claustrophobic, afraid, stressed, high-strung, and bad about myself most of the time. Perfectionism is very demanding, critical, and judgemental. I have learned that a positive, gentle, and encouraging approach is far more effective.

Each painting took just a few minutes, but they have a life to them that can often be lost in a more ‘perfect’ painting

I spent a long time undoing my perfectionism. If you’re like me, and you hear a constant inner monologue of critique as you work, the first thing to do is simply to notice it. Notice it whenever it happens. After a while, begin to reword it for yourself. Replace it with something positive. Tell yourself the exact opposite of whatever the negative thing was. Over time, you will begin to do this automatically and this will become the story you believe.

Your mistakes do not define you. Your getting back up, your ability to keep showing up, and your strength, do.

I identified my Inner Critics that were causing much of this negative internal monologue. I began noticing whenever I would psyche myself out or get stuck in a perfectionist spiral. I felt embarrassed or ashamed of a bad painting. I tried to only do work when I could do it well, or to create in private if I didn’t know what I was doing.

Now, I tell myself kind, encouraging things. I tell myself it’s ok if the painting didn’t work or if I don’t understand something. My mistakes do not define me. My getting back up, my ability to keep showing up, and my strength, do. The same goes for you, too.

Regardless of the space anyone else might create – a teacher in a class, a parent at home, an author in a book – I have created, very carefully, a space for myself in which it is ok to make mistakes, to be a beginner, and to learn. It requires ongoing practice and vigilance to maintain this space, but it is there, and it is sacred.

The thing is, no matter what, you can’t control what others think, say, or do. But you can control what you say to yourself. Be kind, be gentle, be encouraging. You’ll be more productive, happier, do better work, and have more fun. What’s not to like about that?

Over years of making art and starting my own business, I’ve learned that the very best way, if not the only way, to get somewhere is to take action toward it. As many small actions as you can. It’s the cumulation of these small actions over time that will get you to where you most want to go.

Every time you show up and take action, every time you pick yourself back up from a failure, you get a little stronger, you begin to believe that that is the type of person you are.

The quality of your work will actually improve if you let go of perfectionism

Not being a perfectionist does not mean that your work is no longer held to a high-standard or of high-quality. You can produce quality without being a perfectionist. As Seth Godin says, “If you don’t like your definition of ‘good enough’, then feel free to change that, but the goal before shipping is merely that. Not perfect.”

An afternoon-worth of paintings, and many small learnings gained

You’ve likely heard the saying “action begets action” and it’s true. I truly believe that the best way to get better at something is to make a lot of work. The sooner you make the mistakes and try different things, the faster you will learn and get better at whatever it is that you are doing.

I used to go to art classes and feel very self-conscious if there were others in the class who were more skilled than I, or if I made a mistake. I would dwell on it later and beat myself up about it. I often felt shame and embarrassment over even small mistakes. This behaviour and thinking was holding me back and it was very disheartening. Now, I don’t worry so much what others think. I just make.

The thing with making a larger quantity of work is that, while only the best pieces make it out into the public, you learned from all of them. I make lots of paintings and screenprints that never leave the studio, but they are critical to my art practice. They have served a very important role: they have taught me what works and what doesn’t work, they have increased my confidence, and they have enabled my work to progress much more quickly. Each time I finish something, I feel a little more sure that I can show up and do it again.

I now do my best to make as much work as I can. I found and made up exercises to help me make a lot of work. Their whole purpose was to help me make as much art as I could – gesture drawings, speed-paintings, etc. These were often separate from the ‘finished work’ I was doing, but they helped me to loosen up and, over time, to learn to embrace mistakes.

The wonderful thing about taking action regularly, is that you find your creative flow. You get into it, and you are engaged in your life and in your work. I have found that the more engaged and purposeful I am, the more sure I feel in my own skin, and the less I care what others think. Every time you show up and take action, every time you pick yourself back up from a failure, you get a little stronger, you begin to believe that that is the type of person you are. This translates to all areas of your life.

Finally, try to be curious instead of critical. When something doesn’t work as you hoped, ask yourself (or your team) what went wrong? What little piece went well? Can you take that and use it down the road in another work? Did you learn some things to not do in your next work?

All of this is helping you to grow and learn, and this is a very good thing.

For help overcoming your Inner Critics, I have a free PDF guide and a blog post all about sneaking around your Inner Critics. If you’re struggling with showing up and doing the work, I have a post about how to get out of your own way and start creating.

Most of the paintings in this post are part of a set of gestural landscapes done in 20-brushstrokes or less – an idea originally from the artist Nathan Fowkes, and helpful for getting started on a studio session.

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