It’s time to rev our creativity engines and fuel them up for our next big project. It could be writing—lots of writers here—or it could be visual art, music, cooking, digital projects or anything else that puts you in that satisfying creative zone. If you’re running dry, here’s a little something to top off your tank—Notion Potion, where this month we’ll tackle the insidious issue of perfectionism!
I’ve been on a few job interviews in my life. Heck, when I was done with grad school, I’d matriculated right into a big ol’ recession. So I know a lot about job interviews. Still, I’ve always had to wonder, what’s with that question that goes something like this: Given your experience, and your education, and your desire to work for this company…what would you say is your biggest flaw?
I mean, come on. How’re you supposed to answer that one?
a. I’m so attractive that the mere sight of me makes my co-workers insanely jealous.
b. Occasionally my veneer of civility might slip and you’ll all see how much I loathe you all.
c. I work too hard, and I care too much.
So…guess which answer I usually gave. (No, it wasn’t the one about being disarmingly cute, but thanks for thinking so!) It was that I work too hard! Oh, poor me! Poor, poor me!
You know what the creepy part was, though? While it might have been the only thing I could think of to answer a seemingly impossible question, it was totally true. I’m a perfectionist and I work my butt off, sometimes for no immediate or tangible reward. That is totally NOT a negative for any prospective employer—heck, they make out like a bandit when they hire me because I will care more about my performance or projects than any manager possibly could, and I do the work of three people.
In the end, though, guess who burns out and ends up angry and disillusioned? Not the company. Not the boss. Me.
It’s Supposed to be Fun
If you harbor this kind of energy (and you know if you do, because you’ll be nodding your head at this point and maybe even feeling a bit ill) chances are you don’t just leave your perfectionist mojo at the day job. Perfectionism is like that hornet at a picnic that hovers in your peripheral vision no matter how many different tables you sit at. It follows you everywhere. Even when you’re supposed to be having fun. Especially then.
What’s even more confusing is that a certain amount of perfectionism is good for a creative project, particularly if it keeps you reaching and striving to dig a little deeper and be a little better every time, which we talked about last month in Hamburger vs. Steak. But the flip side of having standards that keep nudging you to do better is that those impulses might grow so loud and insistent that they completely psych you out. You give up before you start, and you go watch TV or surf the net instead of creating something, because it would be really, really difficult to fail at those activities where all you need to do is passively consume.
That’s what’s weird about perfectionism. It can stop you completely from doing something, even when doing something sort-of-well is infinitely better than not doing it at all.
It’s like those hoarding shows where people are buried under masses of junk. A frightening number of those people got that way because they held on to an object with the intention of fixing or altering it in some way, then became daunted by their own perfectionism and gave up. So, let’s say a perfectionist hoarder finds an antique headboard at a garage sale. They create a vision of sanding and stripping it, having a stain formulated to match the house’s woodwork, refinishing it and putting together the bedroom…but this becomes too daunting. Instead of taking the project 25% of the way in one afternoon (which would involve dusting the headboard off and attaching it to the bed as-is, and staining it later as a weekend project) they end up throwing the headboard on top of the bed, along with a couple weeks of groceries and a few feral cats, and going and sleeping on the couch in their own filth for the next 15 years.
Don’t let this be you. Since I am with you on this journey (and I’d be really sad to learn you were sleeping on the couch in your own filth) I’d like to offer three ways to look at the situation when your perfectionism has you paralyzed.
Perfectionists attempt to operate at maximum capacity, all of the time. But in a study of Olympic runners, mental coach Robert Kriegel found that by telling the runners to aim for 90% effort, this 10% of relaxation improved their running times dramatically over the instances in which they were told to run full-out and give it everything they had. By reassuring yourself that you don’t have to give it all, that you can strive for 90% effort (rather than 900%) not only might you end up with a creative project that’s quirkier, more playful, more genuine, and a lot more fun to produce…at the very least, you’ll end up with something rather than nothing.
Something is Better than Nothing
The cool thing about having something is that the something can be edited and played with. Or maybe that something needed to be produced simply so you can see how it’s wrong, thereby taking you one step closer to a creation that’s better aligned your intent. When I was in charge of the layout of a company newsletter and the people who were supposed to write the articles choked (I could tell because they would keep procrastinating on the article) I would write an article for them and give them something to edit. Seeing something there, anything, gave them a starting point to begin shaping their ideas. “No, I don’t want to mention that…oh, but I really do want to get into this other aspect….” Of course, sometimes they’d just say, “Wow, you wrote my article, thanks,” and that would be that. But at least it didn’t hold up the production!
When you’re feeling paralyzed by your perfectionism, is there a way you can step outside yourself and make some kind of beginning? Think of yourself as the technician who could care less about your article and just wants to get started on the color separations for the printer, and plow through your first draft that way. Then perfectionist-you can actually start tinkering with a real project, rather than shooting blanks and tweaking a project that doesn’t even exist yet.
Enjoy the Process
Some things you do for the outcome, and some things you do for the process. Most people don’t brush and floss their teeth because they love the feeling of brushing their teeth, for instance. They do it because the dentist told them something scary about periodontal disease, plus right now their tongue feels wooly and they’d rather it not felt that way. Or maybe just because their spouse wouldn’t kiss them. Either way, the process of tooth-brushing isn’t what most folks focus on. It’s the outcome.
When you’re working on a creative project, chances are you’d really like a nice story or painting or song to show for your efforts. But creative projects are special in that the process can be just as rewarding as the outcome. A potter might throw dozens of pots, squashing down the initial attempts and re-using that clay, before hitting on a form that’s just right. The point of the endeavor isn’t the single pot—because, let’s face it, if what you want is a pot, you can hop online and find a pot pretty easily. The whole point of sitting down at the wheel is to sink your fingers in and experience the clay.
Don’t Overthink It
A final thought on perfection paralysis: most of us who suffer from this creativity handicap usually think too much. Way too much. So maybe the best motivation is short and sweet, a new bit of self-talk, something quick and positive. Next time you’re spinning your wheels and starting to freak out, see if it helps to calmly and lovingly tell yourself, “Just get started.”
Author and artist Jordan Castillo Price is the owner of JCP Books and the author of many award-winning gay paranormal thrillers, including PsyCop and Magic Mansion. Her latest series, Turbulence, is a twisted foray into the Bermuda Triangle. Check it out at JCPbooks.com