The Double Edged Sword of Perfectionism
By Maile Sundquist
Do you suffer from the incessant need to have your lipstick match your dog’s collar, straighten the pig-tails of a stranger’s child, trim your lawn with nail scissors, or spit shine your SUV? Then you’re not alone. Perfectionism plagues one in five people (not a real statistic) on a daily basis and can seep into every area of our lives. Once its seeds are planted, there is no escaping its ever-compulsive, judgmental eye. From the way we dress, brush our teeth, clean our house, care for our kids, and yes, even how we work and create. It either drives us to the top or drives us crazy! The life of a perfectionist. The struggle is real!
The drive for perfection can contribute to helping people master skills and techniques and have an unsurpassed eye for detail. It can help artists hone their abilities and work to an enviable degree. But it has drawbacks. A perfectionist tendency should be used as a guide and tool, not as the end-all standard, especially if we find it is hindering our flow, inspiration, the completion of our work, or keeping us from starting at all.
My parents tell me that my first urge, even before eating or sleeping was the need to create. Every time I said the word doodle my parents thought I had to go to the bathroom, when all I wanted was to draw. Sleeping and eating did however run a close second and have remained tied at number two to this very day. My husband often pokes fun at me for how I can literally forget to eat or use the bathroom when I am in the “creation zone.” I am a singer, songwriter, face painter, visual artist that works in multiple mediums, photographer, fiction writer, musician who plays multiple instruments, and a videographer. I still long to learn and master a plethora of other artistic pursuits, on top of my already burgeoning repertoire, and struggle daily with what pursuit to focus on. People say I’m a glutton for punishment, but I think it’s the excited wonder-filled kid in me that looks at everything that sparks interest and thinks, “That’s cool, I need to do it!”
This combination of overzealous, unbounded ambition and dreams mixed with perfectionism proved to be a synergistic nightmare for achieving success. The cycle of not being able to decide on what artistic passion to pursue, then when I am able to run with something for more than a week, hitting a perfectionism roadblock, held me back from making progress in my freelance artistic career. The need to have everything – image, portfolio, website, etc. – flawlessly in place before I could present myself to the world had been a huge hinderance to me being able to take the critical steps to getting myself out there, getting the right exposure and making the right connections. It kept me from moving forward for years! And once my website was finally up, the host had updating issues, then the software I used to create it stopped being supported. It wasn’t until I began randomly sharing my pieces with family and friends on Facebook that people started inquiring about my services. It had nothing to do with how perfect my website or portfolio was. I joined forums and groups and made connections and things have continued to pick up. My website is still unfinished, but at least it’s up, editable, and a place where I can grow, express myself, and share my creations and dreams and connect with others. I have realized it’s better to just start working and pursuing my dreams than to have everything in place. There will always be obstacles and hangups to get over and work through. Nothing is ever going to be perfect for long. We must grow and adapt and roll with the only constant in life: change.
As many a Star Wars fan understands, having been traumatized by George Lucas’s brazen, re-edits of his original films, an artist could work on a piece forever and never be fully satisfied -much to the dismay of their faithful fans who have come to love their original work. Having the endless urge to perfect can leave an artist exhausted and discouraged and in the end make them resent their creation and perhaps, worst-case scenario, never finish it. I know only too well the blood, sweat, and tears caused by days of laboring over a piece of art, only to realize that, after the last revision – which prolonged the project by ten hours – it was actually better beforehand. Now when I feel I’m overworking a piece, or am left frustrated and discontent by a specific aspect of a project, before it turns into an abstract rendering of two brown bears in a mud fight or kindling, I stop and work on something else until I have had enough separation to revisit it with renewed passion and focus. During that time I consider why I feel the piece is incomplete or not good enough, and if the the reasons are perfectionism-driven, then I find the next logical stopping point and call it good. I figure it’s better to have 20 completed pieces for a show than 5 “perfect” pieces and miss a deadline or opportunity. Another thing I watch out for is the arbitrary desire to make the piece fit some mythical ideal vision I concocted in my head. If I determine things are in proportion, the colors are right, the composition is good, the mood is set, then I turn to the perfectionist bug and stomp on it, light it on fire, and then flush it down the toilet. Remember, sometimes works of art take on their own life as you go with the artistic flow. So unless you are a technical artist and are commissioned to draw a realistic rendering of a new species of jackalope, then don’t be so hard on yourself.
Perfectionism drives us to compare ourselves to others and doesn’t let us ease up on ourselves enough to make mistakes which are crucial for learning and growing and refining our skills. It’s easy to see a Norman Rockwell painting and be inspired to learn figurative drawing and painting skills. It’s just as easy to begin to practice and after your twentieth sketch feel hopelessly discouraged by the amount of work it will take to achieve that level of realism. It may in fact take you until pigs fly, or it may take you less time than you think if you apply yourself. We must not sell ourselves and our abilities short. Nor should we use someone else’s art as a standard that we must live up to. Now it’s true, if you are striving for realism then you have a basis for comparison, but even with reality as your goal, you mustn’t hinder your style and unique view of the world by striving for perfection. We can’t forget that nothing is truly perfect or symmetrical in nature, and so we should try not to obsess over the details too much. Nothing kills inspiration and creativity faster than comparing your work and self to others. Let the learning curve take place, give mistakes room to breathe, and have fun! If you aren’t able to surpass a technical hurdle, then take classes or seek out constructive criticism from people you trust so that you can continue to move forward. Art should be enjoyable, not tedious. View your art skills just as you would your reading skills as a child. It took time to learn how to read, but every little word you learned was an accomplishment to be proud about. You wouldn’t have beaten yourself up over only learning five new words in a week rather than eight. You would rejoice in every little victory, and that’s the same mind set you should have about learning to create with new mediums. Remember, even Leonardo Da Vinci started with simple sketches that may not look too much different than your own. We all have to start somewhere.
A good example of comparing oneself to others from my own life would be in the realm of my joint music efforts with my husband. We have been song writing together since 2000 and have nothing to show for it. A big issue that has held him back has been waiting on financial resources to get us the software, equipment, and time in a professional recording studio he felt we needed so that our music could sound its best and compete with other artists. He has been hung up, unable to release any of his amazing songs to the public, because he’s let himself catch the perfectionism bug. He is plagued with the sense that people will not appreciate his work if it doesn’t sound “professional” enough. Rather than make an average EP, build a fan base, and rally financial support to back the production of a superior album for our fans, people still do not know what we even sound like. It’s been an agonizing road that only now, fifteen years later, are we finally making headway in. And as fate would have it, we command even fewer resources and less time than we did back then. So many could-be opportunities have been lost for us because he did not push through his fears and perfectionist ideal and it kept us from completing the album. Don’t let perfectionism form boundaries and strict criteria you will then feel constrained by. Look at a disadvantage or lack of resources as a challenge that needs a creative solution rather than let it become an impenetrable obstacle to achieving your dreams. Find a workaround or make due with what you have.
I think I will battle with perfection forever, but as long as I keep it in check, embrace where I, and my skills are in the moment, leave room for mistakes and keep moving forward, I will prevail, and you will too. There is only one you in the history of the world! Once you’ve discovered what it is you’re passionate about and what you have to say, don’t hold back! People will either love or hate your style, but you can’t worry about it. If you are passionate and true to your convictions and inspirations then people will notice. Don’t let perfectionism bog you down with getting hung up on comparisons, insignificant details, and fear of mistakes. Don’t let anything or anyone, not even yourself, hold you back or hinder your success. We must never give up on our dreams!