If you’re feeling stuck in your work, it could be the tyranny of perfectionism.
“Nothing can be beautiful that does not take a calculated risk with ugliness.” ~ Alain de Botton
“I can’t do it,” my client, Carrie said. “I mean I literally cannot even get started. The woman who routinely cranks out all kinds of other work is now completely blank, empty, done.”
“What do you think is different this time?” I asked. “Why do you think you are stuck now compared to all the other times you’ve been up to bat?”
Carrie was silent for a moment. I stared at my phone and waited.
“The stakes,” she said. “This is a huge investor pitch for my company. We need this deal to go through, or we might not be around in six months, you know? Everything about this presentation has to be perfect.”
“That was the word I was waiting for,” I said.
“What? Which word?” Carrie asked.
“Perfect,” I said. “Striving for perfection is the worst briar patch, the most gnarly, tangled mess of lies and painful thoughts. A sure killer to your creativity, and perhaps even more importantly, to your reserves of willingness to try ideas.”
“OK, so what do I do?” Carrie asked. “How do I free myself from the briar patch?”
“Paper,” I said. “Lots and lots of paper. And one marker. I’m setting a timer. I’d like for you to generate as many shitty ideas as you possibly can in 15 minutes. All we are after here is volume. Just get ideas down. The shittier, the better.”
“Wait,” Carrie said. “What’s the catch? The goal is idea quantity only?”
“Quantity only. Completely forget quality. In fact, try to push quality away right now.”
“I’ll admit to being totally confused,” Carrie said. “But I’ll try it.”
“Great! I’ll call you back in 15 minutes on the dot.”
Quantity over Quality
When I called Carrie back, her mood had brightened considerably.
“You ought to see this mess,” she laughed. “I’m surrounded by piles of paper filled with shitty ideas. You’d be proud of how awful these are.”
“Excellent. Dig through the pile now and pick out your favorite one. Read it to me.”
I could hear her shuffling through the pages.
“Hmmmmm,” Carrie said. “You know, I’ve got something here that is completely ridiculous, but it could be changed. Worked on. I think I might be able to make something out of it. I wrote down that I should do the presentation dressed as a clown to lighten the mood. But what just occurred to me is that I could actually wear a costume of sorts. Not a clown costume, of course, but maybe dress up like one of our ideal clients. Or, if not that, start the presentation from their voice. Or, maybe tell a story. Oh, that’s it. I can start with a very compelling story that really highlights how vital our work is, how transformational it is.”
Carrie was now on an idea roll. In a matter of 15 minutes, she had pierced through the sticky membrane of perfectionism and had her creative footing back again. By employing a tactic inspired by Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Carrie was able to generate multiple ideas quickly that eventually led her to an idea she could refine and use.
Lamott cautions us: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” Lamott suggests that we just get something down, anything down. We can then go back and see what we might have. Pan for gems. Pluck out the good bits and then rework what was once a shitty draft into new and better drafts.
The Familiar Tyranny of Perfectionism
Perfectionism keeps us jailed and in a never-ending loop of “not good enough.” The work is not good enough. The idea is not good enough. We’re not good enough. The more times the “not good enough” wheel turns within us, the deeper the tracks are made. And the harder they are to escape.
I grapple with the tyranny of perfectionism all the time, most especially when I’m trying something new, and like Carrie, when the stakes are high. No matter how familiar the painful perfectionism territory, I can still blindly flounder for hours or even days before I remember my job is first only about quantity, not quality.
And then there is what Ira Glass describes in the video below—the painful gap of knowing what great work is and not being skilled enough yet to create your work to that standard. As Glass points out, it takes a tremendous volume of work for your work to get better. To rise up to your own exquisite taste.
We are desperate to do great work. Work that inspires others. Moves them. Takes them further along in their journey in some way.
We want our work to shine, reflect who we are, how we think, what we’re made of.
To get to our great work, we have to embrace our worst work. Let the marks go down upon the blank page or canvas, marring its pristine surface with smudges, ink, pencil, paint, poor choices. Choices that can be made into better ideas, better work. Work that elevates, is clear and connects.
If we stand at the gate of our tender, vulnerable souls armed with the simple idea of volume, we can hold the advancing perfectionism soldiers at bay. If we risk ugliness in our work, we can travel along through its darkest corners and crevasses, littered with shitty ideas and work, right to beautiful, creative work destinations.