Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Tyranny of Perfection


A woman at a scrapbook convention admitted to me that she'd been collecting paper and supplies for five years, but she hadn't made a single scrapbook page. "I'm afraid of goofing up," she explained.

Fear can paralyze you, and it can certainly add unnecessary stress to your life. A New York Times article (3/12/2011) crowed in its headline, "To err is human, and maybe psychologically healthy."
The article quotes Dr. Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation in Boston, as saying, "perfectionists want to rigidly follow rules to get things 'right,' and this often means they're terribly uncreative because creativity involves making mistakes."

Professor Randy O. Frost has done studies in which participants were asked to write passages. Those who were high in perfectionism wrote passages that were "judged significantly poorer in quality than subjects low in perfectionism."

Frost theorizes that "maladaptive perfectionists avoid writing tasks, procrastinate about them, and avoid having others review and comment on their work to a greater extent than nonperfectionists."

That's understandable. I've been working on a new series idea. My agent made several suggestions, my beta readers made a few, and my husband had some also. At each turn, their suggestions temporarily stunned me, caused me to freeze up. But after a short time spent licking my wounds, I could see that all their comments were helpful. It was my initial RESPONSE to their suggestions that was the problem.

Recently a young family member was working on a project. "What will I do if no one likes it?" she said. "What if it's rejected?"

I told her, "If you choose to live a creative life, there is always that chance. That's why so few people can succeed as artists. Whether it's a musician playing a composition, or a painter displaying her work, or an author submitting a piece of writing...we put ourselves out there, and we're open to rejection."

I should have gone further. I should have added, "But the alternative is to give up. Whatever you do, it will never be perfect. Not in your eyes and not in the eyes of all your critics."

That woman with all that paper, collected over five years, what has she learned? Nothing. Frost noted that perfectionists, by avoiding sharing their work and getting feedback, may not develope the same quality of writing skills as non-perfectionists. Feedback (okay, criticism) stings. But input helps us see our work from others' viewpoint, and that ability to stand outside of ourselves is invaluable.

This weekend I wandered the streets of Juno Beach enjoying the outdoor Art Fair. Not every display was to my liking. But as I walked along, I admired their efforts. We're kindred spirits, those artists and I. We know what it's like to make a lot of mistakes. We've overthrown the tyranny of perfection.

13 comments:

Camille Minichino said...

I have some beautiful notebooks lying around -- some made by friends! -- empty, because I don't want to mess them up by writing in them.

Today that changes! Thanks, Joanna.

Monica Ferris said...

What a nice piece of writing. It should be read by every person considering doing something creative - especially if they think they'd like a career in it. Criticism never stops stinging, but it's absolutely necessary to the process.

Michael said...

Camille, if one of those was made by me, you can always get another one. Always. 'Cause I'm your bud.

Michael said...

Monica, that's high praise coming from you. And if you recall, you found a problem with my first book, and I then was able to fix it. Thanks again.

signlady217 said...

You nailed it today, girl. Thanks for the reminder to just do what you love, for yourself at least, even if it doesn't turn out "perfectly"!

Julie said...

Perfection and I are virtual strangers, and that's okay. How else does one learn? I wouldn't know much of anything about knitting, or writing, or cooking if I hadn't just plowed ahead, made my mistakes, and ultimately figured out how to fix them. This involved a lot of ripping out of knitting, rewriting, and some pretty "interesting" meals, but I learned. How terrible to be so frozen by fear, and how sad.

Ellen said...

Don't get all worked up over perfection -- your novel/scrapbook/whatever is not going to get there.

If you have the strength, send it forth into the world. And don't go bothering it, unless (say) an editor promises you money on condition of making changes.

Take the lessons you learned, and put them into the next project.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Camille, if one of those notebooks was made by me, please know I'll gladly make you another one!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Monica, you made a comment when you read Paper, Scissors, Death and as a result, I made a slight change. I still appreciate your insight, and that you stopped me from making a "mistake." Especially one that was easy to solve!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Signlady, if you aren't doing what you love, you are wasting your life energy, right? It's like the undercurrent. If you get caught in it, don't fight it, go with it. Anything you fight takes too much energy. Love is rocket fuel.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Julie, I crocheted my first project four times at least. Man, was I tired of that hat. But I learned and I improved, and I am so happy that I didn't give up.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Ellen, you are right. Put what you've learned into the next project. And some projects should never leave the house.

Camille Minichino said...

Yes, indeed, I've been saving the lovely Joanna notebook, when anyone would know she'd want me to use it, even for "imperfect" notes!