Why Passion Beats Perfection

Water being tossed out of a bucket in sunshine

Passion takes inspiration and turns it into something you’re proud of.

Passion motivates you in the morning and fires you up when you are immersed in your work.

Passion is an unlikely breeding ground for a creative block.

However, as an artist, writer or musician, there is a fine line at the far end of the passionate spectrum that can lead you into the realms of ‘perfection’.

Whilst passion makes you care about your work, perfection can make you unhealthily obsessed about your work.

Striving for perfection can stop you from even starting a piece. Or make you so inflexible that you hold onto ideas with a vice-like grip and miss out on valuable opportunities.

As a creative person, you have probably experienced hints of perfectionism such as:

  • Procrastinating over a project because you didn’t think you could bring the masterpiece in your head to life
  • Refusing to work on any other idea until the one you have is finished
  • Refusing to compromise on a collaborative project because you feel your ideas are better

Whilst it’s natural to feel passionate about your work and most of us can identify with at least one of the above, too much perfectionism can find you stuck in a rut with a growing list of people no longer wanting to work with you.

If you want to break the creative block of perfectionism, the following might help.

Image by peasap

Forget the ‘Next Big Thing’ and ‘One Shot’ Syndrome

It is easy to believe that creative stars and masterpieces arrive overnight. Suddenly the next greatest album, single, band artwork or novel is everywhere you go, launching an ‘unknown’ into the limelight. As a creative person in one of those fields it’s hard not to panic. Suddenly all the progress with your work doesn’t seem to amount to anything and you start to think…

If you could only emulate that big hit, then you too could ‘make it’.

It’s natural to feel like this. It’s difficult to fight the urge to compare yourself to another writer or artist, and it can be a healthy encouragement to keep working on your art. The danger is when instead of keeping up the momentum on all your creative projects, you become fixated on that ONE idea that you’re convinced is going to catapult you into the big time.

Initially you’re excited, but then you begin to obsessively tinker and tweak, far past the point you thought it would be ready. You convince yourself that if this idea doesn’t work, then nothing will, so best make sure it is perfect before launching into the world. After ten years of working on your project, you’re up to version 23 and still no one has seen it in case they run off with your idea.

This might seem an extreme example, but ask yourself, have you ever completed a project and then repeatedly refused to send it to a magazine or show people for feedback because “It’s not ready yet”?

You may have other reasons that prevent you from doing this, such as the fear of failure, but if it’s because you’re trying to compose the absolute perfect, ultimate version of your work that cannot be improved then you have been hit by the perfection bug.

The problem with this is that a creative piece of work is like filling a bucket with water. At some point, there is a stopping point before the more you put into it just overflows and becomes wasted. The contents might change, but it does not get infinitely better the longer you play with it.

You’re still being creative, your creative juices are still flowing, but your efforts become lost on that project, so…

Put Down Another Bucket

Creative success rarely stems from one big thing in isolation. They may appear to happen overnight, but they have usually emerged from years of hard work across many different projects, with some outright flops in there for good measure.

It might be less glamorous to work on smaller steps, but your odds of success improve if you are continue to work on a number of different avenues that act as an outlet for you passion. Working on a number of projects, as long as you’re not spreading yourself too thin, is a great way to learn more about your art, meet more people who can help you, try new media and hone your skills.

Hemingway was devastated when his wife lost the manuscript to his novel, and I’m certain there was more than an “oh dear” when she told him. But it didn’t end his career. The work was lost, but his ability and passion to write hadn’t been taken with it.

If you find yourself getting frustrated with one particular piece of work, remember the passion you have for your art and try working on something else. It might be just what you need to reinvigorate ideas for your original piece, or it might show you that there is a better project waiting for your creative input.

Learn When to Hang on and When to Let Go

Refusing to budge with your input on a creative project can make any form of collaboration a miserable experience. This might be with other artists, producers or editors. However, agreeing to go along with every suggestion even if you disagree can be just as damaging. You might be remembered as someone who is easy to get on with, but who has no stamp of identity when it comes to their work. It’s important to stand by your ideas, but recognise when to stand your ground and when to let go.

I’ve met fiction writers who would never let an editor change a single word in their story. They believe they are preserving the integrity of their work, and depending on the changes asked for, they may be. However, it’s worth remembering that fiction editors are just as passionate about the magazine and have a huge amount of respect and familiarity with their audience and what they like.

It might initially feel like a big compromise to have to change your work to have it accepted, but if it is a chance to build a relationship that could benefit your long term career, or a chance to reach a new base of people who might like your work then you may have think about what is more important: the individual piece, or the opportunities presented to you.

Nothing Is Final

It’s almost impossible to work on a piece until it is perfect. You will always see something you could have done differently, or added. So it helps to imagine a standard you want to reach which is below perfection. This might be ‘great enough to submit to a magazine’ or ‘great enough to send into the local radio’.

Once you reach that standard, just tell yourself you’re going to stop working on it for now and submit it, but if you absolutely want to, you can always come back to it at any time.

Because, unless you’re just creating for your own pleasure, the final piece of the process is getting it out there for people to enjoy.

What About You?

Has your work ever suffered from trying to make it perfect?

Do you have any other methods which help you resist the temptation for perfection?

About the Author: Amy Harrison runs Harrisonamy copywriting based in Brighton. You can find further creative contemplation and copy tips for entrepreneurs at her copywriting blog or find her on Twitter at @littleunred.

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  1. great article. I’ve found my blog really helps me to put my creative endeavours out there – my art, writing and photography. I try and post daily – stops perfectionism. I let go by making my own deadlines. I have heaps of projects on the go – best advice I’ve received – ‘don’t foucs on one thing only- will lead to disappointment’. People comment on my work, give me feedback. I get to share my work, I meet/talk to so many people, have gained jobs, handy contacts, gained new ideas and don’t feel isolated. It’s been a real lifeline to the outside world, and opened so many doors. Highly recommend!

  2. Yup — the most likely way to have a perfect idea is to have lots of imperfect ones! Nature is our best model here — an oak tree doesn’t throw out one perfect acorn but lots of them, knowing all sorts of conditions need to come together for perfection to occur. As Picasso said, ‘Inspiration does exist but it must find us working’. Thanks for a great post Amy.

  3. As a voiceover artist, I can get lost in creating the perfect website, getting the perfect agent, booking the perfect campaign, and – the worst one of all – the perfect voice. In the end, what matters most is telling the story that’s in front of me while letting go of any concern of perfection. As a matter of fact, what makes an voiceover artist (or any artist for that matter) stand out is their unique imperfections.

  4. Perfectionism, as many other -isms, is an infection. This one mainly attacks your capability to be pragmatic. Preventing it and/or treating it is essential to actually get things done.
    I’m glad you wrote about it Amy.

    o/

  5. Success leads to confidence and more success. The more I do it, the better I am at getting it done. Moving from print to electronic publishing has made a big difference for me and is a confidence booster because of the idea that it can still be changed.

    I love Anthony’s comment about our “unique imperfections”. Who wants to work with people that are “perfect”? We’ll never live up to their expectations, and it’s likely that the publishing cycle will take too long because perfectionism takes a lot of time. I want to work with real people – including those who make mistakes, admit it, and move on!

  6. I used to let my perfectionist tendencies stifle me, avoiding starting things the end of which I couldn’t see in detail and overworking those things I did start.

    Now, as Life has shown me other priorities I work on paintings until I don’t want to let them go:

    http://vinylart.blogspot.com/2008/06/am-i-finished-yet.html

    Peace,
    @dedlen

  7. @Abby – I’ll bet that posting regularly on your blog does wonders for getting the creative juices flowing as well. If you keep being creative on a regular basis it seems to gather its own momentum!

    @ Orna – Hi! Glad you enjoyed the post, my dad used to use that acorn anaology, better to scatter lots and often than to put all your hopes on one landing in those “perfect” conditions. 🙂

    @Anthony – I think you’re spot on about imperfections becoming attractive selling points as well. We worry about our rough edges because they might turn people away, but for everyone they turn away, there’s someone else who’s going to love them.

    @Sebastian – This is one of the reasons I love the Lateral Action website because it’s packed with practical, straight talking advice that helps you get past those creative sticking points.

    @Wendy, I’d much rather work with somone who had been productive, made mistakes and learned from them, than someone with a perfect track record but only a couple of projects of experience. The mistakes usually make the better stories to tell at parties as well!

    @Daniel – I would say that after starting a project, when to let go is the next hardest part of the creative process. And there’s no right answer, just like you’ve gauged when to let go piece by piece, we learn by being as productive as possible.

    Thank you everyone for your comments!

  8. This is a great distinction.

    On the one hand, you do have to care, you do have to sweat the details. You have to spend that time to take it from “quite nice” to “damned good.”

    On the other hand, you also have to ship, and to let your imperfect masterpiece go so it can find its own audience.

    It’s all uncomfortably like raising children. 🙂

  9. Hi Sonia!

    I’ve heard stories about artists who were fanatical about the details to the point of obsession and they had huge successes, then there are others who enjoy just as much success but openly admit to not worrying so much about the finer details as long as it works for them and their audience.

    I guess it comes down to what works for the artist and the audience!

  10. Amy, terrific post. I don’t believe there is any real perfection when it comes to art. It all comes down to the eyes or ears of the beholder. In the end, the artist has to first be content with their work and be willing to share his/her work with others and be receptive to feedback.

    With each of my documentary films, I’ve always screened them for other artists, filmmakers, and the “average Joe” to get a good feel for what an audience sees & feels (cause it can be very different than what I see) and then I consider the feedback carefully make the changes I feel comfortable with – the ones that I feel make the film better.

    Artists should never strive for perfection, it does not exist in art and it works against one’s own passion. I think that’s what has made pop music the mess it is today – looking to make the perfect song instead of trying to make the song perfectly. Same goes for film and all other art forms.

    Nuff said.

  11. Hi Dan, I think getting to that stage where you’re ready to accept feedback and criticism is a difficult one.The ability to put your work out there and know which advice to listen to in order to make the next changes is a very valuable skill.

  12. Good post.

    My strategy is to work on a piece until it reaches a standard where I think it’s good. You know inwardly when its reached a point where it communicates basically what you want in a compelling enough way.

    That’s why there’s deadlines. You can always tweak. You could tweak over a lifetime. Better to simply have a standard and meet it every time. It won’t always be perfect. But it will always be good enough.

  13. Amy, I couldn’t have stumbled on this post at a better time. I am working on a project at the moment that I am so terrified will go wrong, or not be as good as I know it can be.

    But I have to remember I am just one person and there are always lots of other factors I can’t control affecting the outcome.

    As long as I know I have given my best – and learnt something along the way that is all I can do, otherwise I will end up a stressed out mess at not being able to make it perfect.

    Sound advice in your post!

    Nicola

  14. Hi Tick tock timer – I’ve used your tick tock timer before when I’ve had to enforce a deadline on myself. I am an eternal “tweaker” if allowed. 🙂

    Nicola, as well as producing creative work, learning from the experience is one of the most valuable aspects of the process.

    If you can try to detach from the outcome, or realise that the outcome isn’t completely in your control, it gives you much more freedom to work without that fear of failure.