Perfectionism and The Creative Gap

(originally said by Ira Glass, of This American Life, and subsequently spread around the internet on blogs and through Twitter by various creative types. I can't determine who made this particular graphic.)

I'm a perfectionist, allow me to just say that upfront. 

I set impossible standards for myself, ones that I couldn't be expected to achieve, and then experience the soul-crushing reality of having not achieved those things. In some ways, this ongoing ritual forwards my ability to accomplish goals and motivates me to work harder. Often, it just sets off a downward spiral of disillusionment and self-loathing.

You can imagine how this goes when I utterly fail at something. It's hard to tell what is failure and what isn't, of course, since anything short of perfection tends to be regarded as failure. There are tears. There is depression. There is the general belief that everything will come crashing down, that everything I do is a waste of time, that my goals are nothing more than a mirage in the distance, something I never quite arrive at.

Here's the thing about perfection: It's an illusion. 

I have a few friends who have claimed that at some point in the vague distant future they are going to "launch" themselves and their careers after they have perfected all the kinks and nuances of who they intend to be. See, I don't actually believe this method is possible. I don't think one can burst forth into the universe fully formed, with a fully functioning website, a beautiful portfolio, a backlog of internet history, and plenty of obvious experience and high-profile contacts like the midcareer rockstars they want people to believe they are.

You have to suck first. Publicly. You have to start with crappy materials, make dumbass comments, put out bad work. I know, it's shocking, and a punch in the stomach, but that's how it has to be. I sincerely believe this. What I hear when people talk about how one day they will arrive on the scene in perfect form ready to "start" their successful careers is delusion, and the probability of it never happening at all. ProTip: You're never going to feel ready.

Successful people fail first. It's not that they're not embarrassed about the stupid things they did early on, or continue to do. It's the feeling of being uncomfortable that inspires them to do better, to improve. How do you even know what you suck at if you don't put it out there? How will you make better work if you don't have a starting point?

You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I don't want to be someone who never improves because I never tried. I want to get as close to my high standards as I possibly can. I can't imagine how bad I'd feel about myself if I hadn't been willing to put less than stellar material into the world that has gotten better over the course of years, that still continues to improve as I go. I want to start new things and improve upon those as well. I want to constantly be evolving into the best that I can be.

I will never achieve anything remotely close to this without first taking risks that may or may not work, and sucking it up when they don't. If I don't have the skills to learn and adapt, how will I achieve anything? How will I survive?

It starts somewhere. If it doesn't, it has nowhere to go. 

I don't want to ever reach a point in which I feel I have accomplished everything I set out to do, that I am somehow complete. There's always something to do better. There's always a way to reach higher. The satisfaction, ultimately, comes from embracing the road to get there, and simply enjoying the process, through all the pain and triumph and embarrassment. 

I am the work in progress. 


Chris Stott said...

This is a fantastic article.

Perfection is a plague that often causes so much procrastination.

Creativity is an iterative process anyway. If you look at the startup world, you can see how things a released far from perfect and then gradually improved over time. In fact, software development has a great structure to this that can and should be applied to other creative pursuits.

Do you have any daily mantras to get over this?

Shayla Maddox said...

No mantras, no, but I do a lot of mental work to simply force myself into doing things, regardless of what I fear the outcome might be. I feel a great sense of accomplishment upon completing goals I set for myself, so that's what's ultimately motivating.

Somedays I feel downright incapable, other days confident and carefree. Most of the time I hang out somewhere in the middle and can just "trick" myself into working even when I don't feel like it. :)

It's the overarching accomplishments that build up over years that are truly rewarding for me, rather than putting too much pressure on any one particular thing.

Dave Richardson said...

Its true you have to put out crap work at first. That's because it takes 10 years to reach your potential or 10,000 hours to become a real expert at something. Or should I say anything – sports, art, painting, writing...There are no overnight successes: those who appear to be child prodigies are no better than anyone who puts in X thousand hours concentrated effort.

Shayla Maddox said...


I do think some people have more talent than others at certain things (sports, art, writing, business, etc) but I definitely agree that talent is meaningless if you don't have the discipline to match it.


Robert Vlach said...

Excellent article! Going to share it along...