Saturday, 7 July 2012

Pesky Perfectionism

It's been a week of starting new ventures, finishing up projects, continuing others and being revisited by that old nemesis 'perfectionism', which will be this week’s topic.

Hopefully all of you are doing well on setting, working toward and achieving your regular goals. But are you trying too hard at things? Is perfectionism helping or hindering you in this process? Doing things well is something we all strive for and is a good approach. But I think when that desire to do something 'perfectly' interferes with the process or even stops us from creating then it's time to examine this aspect of our personalities. If in our goals we try to achieve each one with perfection, we may get so hung up in that aim that we become paralyzed with perfectionism.

The funny thing about creating is that you really won't ever get to the point where things are 'perfect'. The esteemed American folk musician Pete Seeger was quoted in Revival: ''If you’re a musician, it means you’re going to die unfulfilled…you’ll spend the rest of your life on an upward learning curve because you’ll never be as good as you can be. You’ll die an apprentice, a student, and there’s nothing better than that. To have achieved the best you can ever be––that’s a tragedy.” 

At 93 and having performed with people from Woody Guthrie to John Mellencamp, Pete has had a long, successful career and every opportunity to be 'perfect.' His songs are so ingrained in our lives that we forget who wrote them. These are songs such as 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone,' 'Turn, Turn, Turn,' and 'If I Had a Hammer.' He also popularized the use of the song 'We Shall Overcome' during civil rights demonstrations. But the thing that I like so much in his quote is that he speaks of the process of music (which can be translated to any art). Creating is an eternal and we are forever students of creativity and to expect perfection is to miss the point--the joy of just doing it.
Part of being creative is about engaging in the process of creating. Perfection is an abstraction that really doesn't exist--anywhere. The very nature of creativity always allows for something to be done in a different way; perfection implies there is not other way to do something. But when we finish a piece of art or writing or whatever we create, and continue to pick and prod at it looking for that 'perfection', it won't come because there isn't a definitive end to creation. And that's a good thing. Instead, perhaps we need to look for a point of saturation or clarity in our work. Is it close to saying what we wanted it to say and does it convey the emotion or idea we wanted to share?

The thing is, you won't produce your very, very best work every time. We really do need to get through the not-so-good pieces to arrive at the really good ones. It is that process of moving through each paragraph, each sketch, each practice session that gives us the practice that leads us to the piece that allows us to say 'ah, that's what I was trying to say', an acceptable level of statisfaction. The overly critical eye will forever pick and poke at things but you have to come to a point where you just step back and let go. Have you ever over-worked a piece? That is perfectionism getting in the way. We work and work to get it 'perfect' until we go past the point where it was 'right'. Also, if we try to create only masterpieces each time, we will definitely become frustrated and quit...before we get to the point of really creating something wonderful that others can relate to.  

When you look at creativity as the place where you don't have to be perfect, you just have to 'do,' I think it allows some freedom that will open you up to new possibilities. It is in our nature as creators to want perfection, but it is also in our humanity that it won't  happen. And to open up to that is to open up to a sense of freedom in creating--it doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to come into being. I think that if we produce something perfect each time then we have become an automaton--cranking out 'perfect' items with little soul or emotion. And creativity is about that soul and emotion.

My grandmother used to deliberately put in a little flaw in her sewing or crocheting--very small imperfections. She said she did this so the 'little people' wouldn't be jealous of her work and play tricks on her. I think it was a way of eliminating the desire for perfectionism. She also said that there wasn't any such thing as perfection--even God's handiwork--people--have all sorts of imperfections and we loved them anyway, in fact, it is those who are less than perfect that we love the most.
By letting go of the need for perfectionism, I don't mean that that you accept a very low level of performance and stop caring at all about the quality of what you produce. But instead, taking on an attitude of what you produce having the quality of being pleasantly ample (since you are working at the best of your ability at that time). Reframing your expectations of 'perfect' (a non-existent concept) to proficient at that time gives you a sense of moving forward, a sense of growth in your efforts and endeavors.

What you create really is sometimes supposed to be fodder for later works; sometimes it is supposed to be the foundation piece for the next work. And truthfully, we can't always create to the best of our abilities. A couple of weeks ago I was hit with a really bad chest infection which left me quite weak and tired. At the same time I was worrying about my grandson in America who was critically ill with pneumonia. Who can create to their best ability when they have physical and emotional drains sucking the life out of them? I still had some projects that had to be done and really, the things I created weren't my best ever. But they were the best I could do at that time, which was sufficient.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t be creating at a point of intense difficulties—in fact, creating at times of stress is a great release and many wonderful pieces have been created through such times. But that angst is not necessary for creativity and oftentimes when we are greatly stressed we will also be overly critical of our work and keep ourselves on a loop of wanting to do well and yet feeling so far removed from proficiency and thereby feeding frustration.

Now that my grandson is fully recovered and I am too, my work does look better because I'm coming from a better point. Am I going to worry about what was created during that stressful time? No, because that would be a waste of energy. Did anyone who looked at it turn up their noses and say 'geeze, that's not perfect!'? No. Most of those items did sell and that to me means acceptance.

So if at the end of a piece you are critiquing it and looking at how and where to improve, do not let it counter your sense of accomplishment of having created! It may say exactly what someone else was waiting to hear. It may express the very emotion another was wanting to experience. It may be just what someone else is looking for. These are experiences of sharing and our creativity is all about sharing. Needing to be 'perfect' tends to lead us down a path of disappointment. Letting go of perfectionism and being happy with the experience of creating leads to more growth and the desire to see what can be done next, for there is always a 'next' in creativity.

So let go of the pressure of 'perfect' and enjoy each creation as it comes out! You might be surprised at what happens.  

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