The perils of perfectionism

Do you struggle with perfectionism? I do.

My theory is that school trains us in the false belief that you can do something perfectly or (a worse misconception) be perfect. They train you to believe there is always a right and a wrong, and that you can ‘get everything right’…10 out of 10, 100%, A+! This leads us to the false belief that perfection is both desirable, and possible.

Of course, if you can be right, you can be wrong.

Text on a chalkboard reading "have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it"
There’s no such thing as perfect.
 Perfectionism is an expression of fear of failure. You keep that idea in your head, where its perfect and no one can judge it 'wrong'  

If I’m not careful, I can become paralysed with the need to find the right answer. Pick the right character, pursue the right plot-line. I want my creation to be perfect, but there’s no one to tell me the right answers except for me.

What I try to remember is: if there is no right, there can be no wrong. Sure, there are some technical things like grammar and spelling where accuracy is important so you can get your message across, but even those don’t have hard and fast rules.

What matters is getting that idea out of your head, and onto a page, or onto a whiteboard, or a piece of butcher’s paper. The truth is the idea is probably not all that great anyway: ideas are cheap, and few are truly original. Our brains are lazy, they regurgitate stuff we’ve seen elsewhere. To truly create something takes effort. You need to take a whole bunch of ideas and weave them together to express something about the world, or life. And to do that, you have to be prepared to throw a whole bunch of stuff out along the way.

Some writers talk about “Draft Zero” – the draft before the first draft, where you get a whole bunch of ideas out in a loose, messy form, just so you can start improving on them. Twyla Tharp talks about having project boxes, where you can throw all the random bits and pieces that relate to a project you are developing in together. Both these ideas share the principle of not being too precious, and giving the embryonic idea opportunity to develop.

If perfectionism is a struggle you recognise, try to let go of that belief in right and wrong, and focus on airing and developing those ideas instead.

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