January 17, 2021

How Perfectionism Has Held Me Back

An idea so perfect it would change everything. For you. For others. Have you ever had one of those? I’ve had a dozen... and yet, none of them are yet to  reach fruition. Year on year, I would start multiple creative projects, fizzle out, and move onto the next one. One of my dreams is to create a graphic novel with amazing story and art which captivates the reader. In my head it exists. But placing it into the real world is proving more challenging. And I’m beginning to understand the inability to make those profound ideas that you and I have real can be surmised by one word:


It sounds, pardon the pun, perfect. Being a perfectionist means striving to attain flawlessness and accepting nothing less of yourself, and in some cases, others. What they don’t tell you on the packaging is a perfectionist mindset comes with a debilitating little monster I call critical self-talk. At some point in my life, every sentence I wrote for a story, or every pencil stroke I drew for an illustration, became not good enough...  actually in my mind, it was worse than that, it was absolute garbage. No one else could see it but I noticed every flaw.

And so I began keeping projects tucked away all to myself. Because for others to see it would mean them knowing I was a failure. And with failure, I would lose all credibility. But there’s nothing less credible in my mind than a writer who won’t share their writing with the world, or an artist who won’t produce drawings because their ego is getting in the way. And that’s where I’ve been. But it’s not where I’m going.

You see, if you pick up a pencil and draw something, it can be anything, you have attained the title of artist. And no one can take that away from you. It doesn’t matter whether you drew a stick figure or the Mona Lisa. By drawing, you’re an artist, and what’s more, you’re on your way to being a better artist through deliberate practice. Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa towards the end of his life, not the beginning. He spent decades in Florence, Milan and Rome mastering his craft and understanding the world around him.

When you look at children, they don’t write, draw or play to become the next great person. They write, draw and play because it’s quite simply... fun. They enter entire worlds or produce ideas without thinking about how the end product will be commodified. And that fun zone is a place I’m learning to be once again. Something that has been really helpful for me is listening to an audiobook I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol S. Dweck. One of the big takeaways for me has been the differentiation between a fixed and growth mindset.

The fixed mindset thinks in absolutes. It believes a person is either born great or not. Improvement is impossible. For me, being in this mindset has been very destructive. It made me scared to show my work. Scared for people to see and know, this guy isn’t perfect. If an idea exists in my head, it could remain perfect, untouched by criticism or my own skill level. What’s more, if I didn’t fully try or give a project everything I had, how could I fail? The caveat is, that’s a shield protecting my ego from the realities of the world, and consequently, I haven’t been able to truly learn or improve to my full potential and become the writer and artist I know I can one day be.

But once its on paper, the mistakes are there, I can see them, and other people can see them. That’s hard. But it also means I now have a starting point from which to improve upon. Which brings me to the growth mindset. This perspective facilitates and provides room for change. It’s where I’m learning to be, and it’s changing how I think about learning and developing skills. The truth is I’m not the best artist I can be... yet. The truth is I’m not at a skill level to produce that 200 page graphic novel with meticulous story and art that captivates the reader... yet.  That one word - yet -  provides me with breathing space to train, make mistakes and learn. To break through the paralysing perfectionism and become a beginner all over again. To work towards goals in a healthy way. To be human.

Adding the word yet into our vocabularies and consciously fostering a growth mindset, I feel that’s beneficial for those who identify as creatives. It allows breathing room and an understanding that, yes, there’s always going to be room to improve upon, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t create now. I’m going to use myself as an example. My understanding of drawing in perspective or conveying the human figure will benefit from refinement. Within this video alone, there’s room to improve the lighting, camera quality and audio. But producing this video now, in this moment, it’s given me a starting point. And I can reflect on every piece I produce, and come out stronger for the next one. Not as a perfectionist, but as a learner.

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