Artist Therapy: Perfection

Artist Therapy Posts: Where we face the feels all artists struggle with.

How many of us like to tell people we’re perfectionists? Isn’t that what they teach people to say in job interviews?

“What’s a negative thing about yourself”

     “Oh, I’m a perfectionist. I won’t submit work until everything is perfect.”

<you both chuckle knowingly, you ace the job interview, get the corner office, etc.>

It’s the worst kind of humblebrag, and it’s universally artists’ favorite excuse.

“Why didn’t you enter that contest?”

     “My piece wasn’t perfect.”

“Why didn’t you show that Art Director your portfolio?”

     “It’s not good enough.”

“Why didn’t you submit to that gallery?”

     “My next piece is going to be perfect for them.”

“Why haven’t you made any new work in 6 months?”

     “I’ve been polishing this really amazing portfolio piece.”

“Can I see it?”

     “No, it’s not done yet.”

You get the idea.

Perfectionism isn’t something to brag about, it’s what’s holding you back.

As writer/TED talker Elizabeth Gilbert says, perfectionism “disguises itself as a virtue” when all it really is a “high-end haute couture version of fear” (BTW have you listened to her podcast? It’s great.) That sounds harsh, right? But it’s true. Perfectionism is the fear that what you are, or what you have made, is not good enough, not worthy enough, to be let loose into the world. This doesn’t only manifest itself in art, it manifests itself in all aspects of someone’s life. Do you have that friend (or are you that friend) that won’t go out unless it’s perfect weather, the right group of people, the right outfit, the right planet in the right house? That’s perfectionism. Are you the kind of person that won’t start a project until you have all the steps worked out through until the very end? That’s a fear of wasting energy on trying something. Perfectionism is the enemy of trying, or experimentation. Perfectionism stops people from enjoying the process. Perfectionism keeps people from trying new things, from taking chances. Perfectionism makes you want to play it safe, and safe is death to artists. Perfectionism stops your project before you even begin it.

You know what all these things boil down to? A fear of failure.

Perfectionism is you telling yourself “I am not good enough.”

Being a perfectionist is not the same as saying you are a hard worker (though you may have been hoodwinked into thinking so) – true perfectionism is what happens when you don’t put something into the world 99% good because that 1% holds you back. Having an artistic vision play out in the real world always takes compromise, and you have to understand the point at which a creation is good enough. No one is saying to phone it in, but endlessly noodling something to death is going to kill your career. First of all, you’ll never finish anything, and second of all, you’ll start to hate the process. In the startup world, they have a term: MVP. Minimum Viable Product. What it means is you get the sketch version out into the world—because that’s the hardest part—and then you test it, revise it, keep crafting it—the easier part. You are showing things to people earlier, and very not perfect, but that’s ok because you’re also saying it’s a work in progress. You’ll get all kinds of interesting important feedback (beta testing) that way. I guarantee your project will be even better than the version in your head that you are refusing to put out into the world.

As writer Rebecca Solnit says: “The perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

If you are a perfectionist, then this is your new mantra: “Done is better than perfect.”


5 thoughts on “<span class="dojodigital_toggle_title">Artist Therapy: Perfection</span>”

  1. This came at a great time for a personal project I was trying to finish. I think it’s possible to use perfectionism as a helpful tool for good draftsmanship, but when it takes over and doesn’t allow me to call something “done” then it’s definitely a major hindrance and at that point I need to tell perfectionism to take a back seat. But who knows. maybe I’ll change my mind on this down the road and kick perfectionism to the curb. Things might be more fun without it!
    I especially love the last few sentences and the new mantra!

    • Like anything else, it’s a balance. too little perfectionism and you’re not pushing yourself. too much and you’re holding yourself back. sounds like you could take a step or two back and see if it lets a little more fun back into the process : )


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