Many creatives are similar in a number of ways; we’re self-critical, often riddled with doubt, and take losses hard. However, one commonality is tied up in all of these, and it can be highly detrimental: perfectionism.
Traditionally, perfectionists refer to themselves as such with an air of pride. That to be a perfectionist — that is, to accept nothing less than perfection — is a desirable way to be and yields better results. While I would agree that it does have its place, true perfectionism is dangerous to creatives, both creatively and in terms of growth.
There are two ways “perfectionism” is usually interpreted, the watered-down version is using the word to mean conscientious and diligent — a natural disposition which has the perfectionist always doing their best and working carefully to ensure that what they produce is of high quality. This isn’t the perfectionism I’m referring to. While it is certainly a sibling or cousin of what perfectionism so often means in a person, it’s far more positive.
The more problematic form of this mindset is when a creative will settle for nothing less than the absolute best when it comes to whatever it is they create, that everything they do has to be knocked out of the proverbial park, portfolio-worthy, and flawless. This way of thinking is conversely dangerous, counter-productive, and highly restrictive. There is a plethora of knock-on effects from this brand of perfectionism, but most fall under three categories: never being satisfied, not working effectively, and not pushing yourself.
Never Being Satisfied
The first issue could easily be rebranded as a thirst for more, a desire to reach higher than ever before and better yourself. It’s a tricky area as I don’t necessarily think that’s wrong, but the word on which the problem hinges is “never.” The healthy and useful mindset of always looking for ways to improve is difficult to refute in both its effectiveness and value as a creative, but if you’re too good at finding flaws in your work, this could lead to you never being happy or satisfied with what you create. If self-improvement is tied up with never being satisfied, you’ll likely fall out of love with what you do. As is the case with most things, there has to be a balance, and if everything you create you immediately tear down, it ceases to be a purposeful critique for growth, and instead becomes something more toxic.
Perfectionists left unchecked seem to have a propensity of initial excitement towards their creation and then a steady decline into doubt and being unable to see past areas of their work that could have been improved. I see this regularly with other creatives, and I know I experience it myself. Achieving balance is difficult, but if you’re never happy with what you create, if you never feel a proud satisfaction at your work, your perfectionism is working against you.
Not Working Effectively
Speaking of working against you, perfectionism can have some damaging practical effects too. That is, when you are a perfectionist, you are unlikely to be working with any real efficiency. This is another double-edged sword, as good work takes time, but if your mindset is becoming a ballast, it needs to be addressed.
This affects creatives in different ways depending on whether you’re a professional or a hobbyist. For a professional, not working effectively can be terminal. Working effectively can be gauged by how many hours you put into a job and what you charge for it. If you’re striving for absolute perfection in everything you create — something few clients (if any) expect — then you’re likely not working at any decent pace. Missing deadlines simply cannot happen in the professional world if you want any semblance of a lasting career, and perfecting the first few pieces and then rushing the rest will likely have a similarly negative impact.
For hobbyists, not working effectively impacts your output, which is a simpler formula. For example, if as a photographer you are trying to get one shot and then trying to edit it to be an award-winning image, you are probably not shooting much. This isn’t necessarily a poor outlook to have, but again, there needs to be a balance. By honing in on a specific shot you want and trying to achieve what is often unachievable, you’re stunting your growth and missing many new shots. That isn’t to say if you have a vision for an amazing shot you ought to give up at the first hurdle, but rather to keep any tunnel vision in check.
Not Pushing Yourself (Fear of Failure)
This final point is a little counterintuitive. If perfectionism is the relentless push for supremacy in what you do, how is that not pushing yourself? Well, the problem comes in a different form. It comes from keeping the bar within reach of where you currently are in terms of ability. One of the most detrimental effects of perfectionism is that you can’t accept missing that mark, and so you become averse to risk. I’m intimately acquainted with this problem, and after I had become proficient with my camera, I was paralyzed by it. The better I got, the higher my standards and the fewer risks I wanted to take. I expected every shot I took to be portfolio-worthy, and if I saw an opportunity to do something great that was out of my comfort zone, I’d shy away. I preferred to keep my perfect record of success with shoots.
This is a terrible outlook and one I had to shed quickly. You learn surprisingly little from success, but enormous amounts from failure. Being a perfectionist is completely at odds with failure, and so any risk of failure is a risk too many. This isn’t to say you should take on shoots you know you can’t do, but rather embrace the challenge and not fear missing the mark. There is a plethora of sports quotes I could put here to reinforce the point, but the overall gist is that no one ever got great at something without failing.
How Has Perfectionism Affected You?
There are far more ways that a relentless desire and expectation for perfection can impact you. There are, of course, positives to this sort of mindset, and for some, perhaps they outweigh the negatives, but either way, I want to hear your relationship with perfectionism. Do you agree that it’s dangerous for creatives, halts growth, and can endanger business? Or do you think it’s a force for good, necessary to create great works?