The myth of perfectionism and creativity
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

I think a lot of us fall victim to the perfectionism myth. Over in facebook land this week I’ve been taking a bit of a look at perfectionism and creativity. For so many of us putting our creative work out there is such a vulnerable process that we go to great lengths to make sure it is “perfect” before exposing ourselves to the outside world and their perceived judgments. The research tells us that all this striving for perfectionism in order to be the best artists we can be is actually a complete falsehood. For so much of my life I have worn perfectionism like a badge of honour when if I face the facts in reality it has been is a shackle holding me back from fearless abandon and creative fulfillment.

“Perfectionism is defined as one’s tendency to set excessively high personal standards (Frost et al., 1990). Hamachek (1978) differentiated between normal and neurotic perfectionism. Normal perfectionists set high personal standards but leave room for making reasonable mistakes and are critical of themselves but in a manner that drives their efforts to be exceptional. Conversely, neurotic perfectionists have little to no tolerance for mistakes and are overly critical of themselves. Neurotic perfectionists tend to procrastinate, and are more concerned with avoiding mistakes than striving for achievement (Frost et al., 1990; Hamachek, 1978). This differentiation was later dubbed adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism.”

Psychologists studied the impact of adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism on improved creativity and yes, you guessed it there was no correlation between the two.  For “normal perfectionists” there was a weak connection between this perfectionist tendency but for neurotic perfectionists there was absolutely no link between this behaviour and a positive creative outcome. (the rest of this study is linked to below)

In a 1993 paper called “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” written by a Professor at the University of Colorado, Anders Ericsson, the “10,000-hours concept” was coined. Based on a study by a group of psychologists in Berlin on the practice habits of violin students in childhood, adolescence and adulthood it stated that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice over many years to become a successful artist. While this theory has been both disputed and endorsed with much enthusiasm over time the facts are that increased time spent creating correlates with increased success.

Then there’s the ceramics experiment cited in the book “Art and Fear”. A ceramics class was divided into two groups. Students on the left side of the studio were graded based on the quantity of work they made, students on the right side judged based on quality. What the teacher discovered was that the higher quality works came from the “quantity” group, creating, learning and improving on their craft. The “quality” group on the other hand had been smothered by the pressure of perfection and produced inferior or no product.

So basically it seems that, the way to create well, is to create. I’m not saying do sloppy work or don’t try your best but if a notion of perfectionism is paralyzing you then get rid of it. You are better off doing something that is great than nothing because great isn’t perfect. Sometimes good enough is just that, good enough. As those marketing gurus at Nike said back in the 80’s – just do it.

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