“For a while, perfectionism for me had always felt like a driving force,” anonymous artist Worry Lines tells us. “At first, it propelled me to do my best work.” At some point in her career, however, that changed. The desire to be perfect was no longer motivating–but stifling. She remembers, “As I became more overworked and overwhelmed, perfectionism started to become a block rather than a propellor.”
“When faced with a long to-do list, perfectionism would stop me from doing anything at all because I knew that there was no way I could do it all perfectly, and in my head, anything less than perfect would be a failure. And failure was terrifying. It was a really paralyzing thing.”
She’s not alone. For creatives, perfectionism can be an asset. It can push us to improve and innovate, and it’s useful when it can be channeled towards productive ends. But if that critical internal voice gets too loud, it can do more harm than good.
“After a lot of work on myself, I have come to the conclusion that perfectionism almost never leads to something good if lived in an anxious and negative manner,” photographer Benedetta Ristori tells us. “In creative work, we constantly struggle with ups and downs–dealing with difficult freelance jobs, competition, rejection, etc.–and I think adding this kind of mental pressure is superfluous and harmful. It’s a waste of our time.”
These days, perfectionism is on the rise. Last year, data from colleges in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain revealed that, amongst university students, it’s jumped by a whopping 33% since 1989.
Some experts suspect it might have something to do with social media; young people today are constantly comparing themselves to their peers, and that has a negative influence on our self-esteem. As reported by The New York Times, parents are worried that this kind of pressure isn’t helping their children to succeed but instead leading to procrastination and anxiety.
Those habits and feelings can follow us from our school days and into our adult careers. “I think perfectionism is something that is often fostered in children who are praised for doing well,” Worry Lines explains. “It’s still a massive problem for me. I spend a lot of time arguing with my perfectionism, which is exhausting.”
In the art world, where there’s little room for “failure,” this kind of anxiety can also discourage risk-taking–a fundamental part of the creative process. The word process here is important, since several of the artists we interviewed for this story suggest focusing on the journey rather than the destination.
“I am definitely a recovering perfectionist,” illustrator Andrea Sparacio admits. “Perfectionism can be the enemy of authentic art-making because there is only so much you can plan for–often, you find solutions inside doing the work itself. For a long time, I cared so much about the end result that I didn’t want to spend time on the development stages of the work. As a result, I hated my own work–because I wasn’t taking any risks in order to love it. I wasn’t allowing myself to just be terrible and power through it.
“It’s okay to have great taste, to want to be really good, to want to be proud of your portfolio. Use perfectionism as a driver instead of a ruler, because you have to make ‘bad’ stuff too in order to get better. There’s that old phrase that people used to say ad nauseam, but it’s true: how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. I feel like people would rather see an artist develop over time than be perfect right out of the gate–what an unrelatable story that would be for most of us!”
In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, author James Clear offers a striking example of this phenomenon. While teaching at the University of Florida, the American photographer Jerry Uelsmann split his class into two sections: the first would be graded only based on the number or “quantity” of images they produced, while the second would be graded solely on the excellence of a single image–or “quality.”
Because the “quality” photographers had all semester to create a single, perfect image, we might expect their work to be better than those who had focused on “quantity.” But at the close of the semester, Uelsmann found that the best pictures of the bunch came from the group of photographers who’d shot as many photos as they possibly could.
The reason? The “quantity” photographers had more experience and more practice. They worked under the assumption that their grades weren’t dependent on whether or not their shots were “perfect,” and as a result, they felt free to experiment, make mistakes, and then correct them. In the end, their photos were better.
Ultimately, Worry Lines took a similar approach to her work. She focuses on quantity. “I started the Worry Lines project as a kind of anti-perfectionist project with a series of self-imposed rules that would encourage me to create and share daily without fear of judgment,” she says. “My first rule was that I had to post a drawing every day on my Instagram account, no matter how (rarely) good or (regularly) bad it was.
“The second rule was that I had to post what I drew without editing it–a rule that I have since loosened as the drawings have become very marginally more complex. Also, I had to share the process video of me drawing the image that I post (which I still do, when the camera works).”
For now, she still works under a nom de plume. “The account always has been and remains anonymous, and this has been incredibly freeing, as I feel I can experiment, fail, have fun, and take the self-imposed pressure off myself to be perfect all the time,” she continues. “It has had a huge impact on my life.
“I think taking the focus off the ‘goodness’ of the thing you are making and shifting the focus to the ‘funness’ or the flow that you find when creating is super rewarding. It takes the pressure off, and almost counter-intuitively, it results in more relatable work.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but with time and practice, Worry Lines has let go of many of her perfectionist habits. She’s happier, and her work is better for it. “It’s hard to unlearn things that have served you well in the past, but unlearning perfectionism has been an extremely positive step for me,” she says. “The next step? Getting friendly with failure.”
Want to learn more about how to get into your creative flow? Check out Skillshare Top Teacher Marie-Noëlle Wurm’s class, Unleash Your Creativity: Draw Without Fear in 5 Simple Exercises.
Header/thumbnail image credit: Skillshare student Gavin L. for Top Teacher Rich Armstrong’s Abstract Art: Easy Ways to Express Yourself With Adobe Fresco.
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