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Say goodbye to perfectionism, and unleash your creative genius

You can’t make your best work by thinking about it. So say goodbye to perfectionism, and begin.

By Sheryl GarrattPublished about a year ago 7 min read
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Photograph from Dreamstime | 181849227

Most creatives are perfectionists.

I certainly am, and it’s cost me a lot over the years. I’ve written about that in Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist.

Perfectionism is the devil perched on your shoulder, forever whispering that your work isn’t good enough. It can stop you starting work — or ever finishing it, and putting what you’ve made out into the world. So it’s time to flick that little monster off its perch and unleash your creative genius!

Here's how.

Celebrate your great taste

But don’t be imprisoned by it. You probably started your creative path because you were inspired and excited by others who’d gone before you.

We often compare our shitty first drafts, our first faultering attempts at an idea with the polished, best work of the masters in our field. We ignore their rough drafts, their early work and focus only on their most accomplished work, finding our own attempts lacking in comparison.

But there’s only one way to get good at anything. You do your reps. You put in the hours. You push through the doubts and fears and you do it anyway, even if you’re not sure where you’re going with it.

No matter how good you get, there will always be a gap between the elusive, perfect thing you first imagined and the work you actually produce. And that’s great. It keeps you excited, critical, striving for better. It’s a sign of your good eye, your discernment, your great taste. It should be an encouragement to do more, not a barrier to starting.

Lower the bar, just a little

Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. You’re not a machine, and you need to take breaks and recharge your creativity.

Set achievable goals, and give yourself some slack to go off on tangents sometimes, to explore and play. You’ll be surprised how much more you can accomplish when you’re not constantly striving for perfection — and beating yourself up when you don’t get there.

Embrace imperfection

Your ideas may be shimmering, lovely, perfect things. But they’re not real. Until you start actually making them into messy, imperfect songs and stories, art and objects, no one can enjoy them. No one can be inspired by them, or learn from them. Including you.

Beauty often lies in imperfection. The scars and twists of an ancient tree trunk. A voice cracking with emotion, mid-song. The flawed hero who makes an improbable story feel true and real. Jeans that have worn and torn to fit their wearer. The Japanese art of kintsugi: repairing broken pottery with gold and making its flaws a feature, instead of trying to hide them.

By Matt Perkins on Unsplash

So take a step back and appreciate the little flaws in your work. The quirks, the lumps and bumps, the experiences good and bad that make you uniquely you. These imperfections show that it wasn’t machine-made, mass-produced, churned out by AI. They give your work its character, and only add to its charm.

Just do it! (Warts and all)

Start before you’re ready. Partly because you’ll never be fully ready. But also because your project will change once you start work on it. We learn much more by doing the thing than by thinking about it.

Remember that this is just an early iteration of your idea. You’ll have plenty of time to redraft it, to polish it and make it pretty later. Most great artists and creators come back to similar themes and techniques again and again in their work. But it’s different each time, because they are different. They’ve grown, and evolved.

It’s easy to get trapped in the cycle of overthinking and procrastination. Start messy. Be sloppy. Rough it out. Slap it down. Stop caring quite so much, and get making instead.

The real cost of perfectionism

This is an exercise from Julia Cameron’s book The Listening Path. She suggests completing this sentence: “If I didn’t have to do it perfectly, I’d try..”

Do this at least ten times, as quickly as you can, filling in the blanks each time with something different.

It’s a great way of seeing what perfectionism is costing us, how it keeps us from playing big.

Failure is a badge of honour

The road to every success is littered with failure, and each undignified face-plant is feedback, another stepping stone towards the success you want.

Failure is embarrassing, so we fear it. We hide and we avoid risk. But you don’t make your best work without taking risks. And no one gets to see it unless you make yourself visible.

When Quentin Tarantino had his first (only) big flop as a director with Grindhouse, he called Steven Spielberg for advice (as you do).

“This is a game, in Hollywood,” the seasoned director told the younger one. “And it’s a long, long game. You’ve been shielded from part of it. You’ve been really lucky. But you haven’t officially been in the game until you’ve had this happen to you.

“Now you can say you are a well-rounded human being. You’ve had success, you’ve had failure — and you keep on going on. This failure will make your next success all the more sweeter. But now you can officially say, ‘I am in Hollywood, I’ve done the thing.’”

(If you’re interested, I’ve written more about Tarantino’s failure, and how he dealt with it.)

Find your support team

Surround yourself with positive people who support your creativity. Build a community of creatives who understand the struggles involved, who cheer for your successes and encourage you when you fail.

Find people who are honest about their own imperfections, and happy to celebrate yours. Remember, you don’t need to make this journey alone. Having companions makes everything easier.

Use appropriate effort

Get clear on what each project is, what it’s for. Set constraints. (Because creativity thrives when you give it limitations.)

I find it helps, even with a small project, to define what I’m doing, who it is for, what success looks like and how much time and effort I’m going to put into it. Sometimes I’ll work with a timer on, to remind myself that this is an hour-long task that needs to be done fairly well, not a week-long one that has to be brilliant.

You don’t need to edit each image for social media the way you’d work on a magazine cover. Your Instagram grid doesn’t warrant the same attention as a Vogue fashion story or an exhibition of your work in a prestigious gallery. A tweet or a quick blog post doesn’t have to read like War & Peace. You don’t have to arrive at every informal, preliminary meeting with a full presentation, mood boards, source materials and weeks of research.

Not all work projects are equal. So don’t treat them that way!

Apply the 80/20 principle

This is the prolific British YouTuber, course creator and author, Ali Abdaal:

“A mindset shift that’s really helped me deal with my perfectionism around content creation is by 80/20ing whatever I’m doing. Instead of trying to make every video 100% perfect, I focus on the 20% of effort that’s going to produce a video that’s 80% as good.

“So, let’s say it normally takes me five hours to script and record a video, by applying the 80/20 rule I can spend just an hour of my time to create a video to a very similar standard. Plus, in the same time it would previously have taken me to create one video, I can now create five really solid videos instead (which genuinely look and perform just as good).”

Reduce the load

It is really, really hard to write The Book. The one you’ve been thinking and talking about for years, the one that will change everything, win a Pulitzer, top the best-seller lists, enable you to finally quit your day-job.

That’s a huge burden to place on any project.

Try writing a book instead of the book. Better still, today just rough out 200 words that might form part of a book. Do this every day — just 200 words — and in 14 months or so you’ll have an 80,000-word first draft, and a much better idea of your story, your characters, what you’re trying to say.

This isn’t just true of writing. It works for any creative endeavour. If you’ve been stuck for a while, pick the minimum viable amount of work possible. Then do it, regularly. And see where it goes.

Listen to Rick Rubin

A prolific music producer who has innovated across genres from hip-hop to heavy metal and country and won nine Grammies in the process, Rubin has distilled his thoughts on creativity into a wisdom-packed book, The Creative Act. So I’ll let him finish:

“We tend to think that what we’re making it the most important thing in our lives, and that it’s going to define us for all eternity. Consider moving forward with a more accurate point of view that it’s a small work, a beginning.

“The mission is to complete the project so you can move on to the next. That next one is a stepping stone to the following work. And so it continues in a productive rhythm for the entirely of your creative life.”

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Sheryl Garratt is a writer, and a coach helping creative professionals get the success they want, making work they truly love. If you’re ready to grow your creative business, I have a FREE 10-day course giving you 10 steps to success — with less stress. Sign up for it here.

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About the Creator

Sheryl Garratt

Sheryl Garratt is a former editor of The Face and Observer magazines, and has written professionally for more than 30 years. She is also a coach working with creatives of all kinds. Find her at thecreativelife.net

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  • Willett3 months ago

    Amazing 🤩

  • Rene Petersabout a year ago

    Great piece! I needed this because of lifelong perfectionism. Thank you for this advice.

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