Don’t Let Perfectionism Hold You Back

“Nobody’s perfect” is one of the first things to get drilled into our heads as kids. And yet, we all know at least one ultra-perfectionist (even if it’s ourselves). Perfectionism is often viewed as a strength, something that makes you a better worker. And it can be. But perfectionism is kind of like a drug; in small doses, it helps you just enough to make your work better. But too much perfectionism and we overdose, so caught up in the edits and adjustments that the most you achieve in a day is laying on the floor on a pile of balled up paper.

Perfection is the imaginary pot of gold at the end of the never-ending rainbow. After all, what is considered “perfect” is subjective, therefore it’s impossible to be perfect to everyoneTake Spirited Away, for example. The first time I saw that movie, I watched it seven times in a row. To me, everything from the animation to the film’s vibes to the mystical story, is perfection.

But there’s one person in particular who would strongly disagree with me. Forget the five reviewers who boo’d the movie on RottenTomatoes (who I also assume have egg icons as their twitter bio pics), I’m talking about the creator of Spirited Away himself: Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is a perfectionist, and when talking about creating his (stunningly beautiful…I’m not biased) films, he says:

“Making films is all about, as soon as you’re finished, continually regretting what you’ve done. We look at films we’ve made, all we can see are the flaws…unless I start working on a new one, I’ll never be free from the curse of the last one.”

This isn’t super surprising. After all, many creatives are staunch perfectionists, their own harshest critic. But it’s sad that someone who creates such beautiful work is haunted by it in a wholly different way than his audiences. And it’s sad to think that, had he let his perfectionism get the best of him? Spirited Away, my perfect idea of a film, might not exist.

That’s the plague of many creatives: getting so caught up in imperfect details up close that we don’t let the strings of the process weave something whole. What starts as trying to improve can spiral into creative paralysis, or “The Perfectionist’s Paradox”: when striving to make your work perfect gets you so constricted with anxiety that it becomes all-or-nothing procrastination and you end up not making anything. Because perfectionism isn’t about our work at all. It’s out of anxiety we have towards ourselves and our own abilities.

The perfectionist’s paradox struggle is real…like scientifically real. NyMag cited a study on perfectionism and procrastination in college students and reported, “Research has suggested that anxiety over making mistakes may ultimately be holding some perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place.” Making mistakes is seen as unacceptable because we internalize them as negative reflections of ourselves rather than what they are – part of the process. Mistakes exist so we can learn from them and be better. If the piece you’re trying to finish just isn’t turning out as you’d hoped, if you ran an ad campaign on social media that gets you zero new customers to your site, if the nobody buys the one design in your Shop you thought was going to be a bestseller – these are all potholes that help us figure out where the pavement needs to be smoothed, the tears in the muscles that build our strength. Without mistakes and shortcomings, we wouldn’t know where to improve.

I am a perfectionist. If I don’t wear the right coat on a cold day, my day is ruined because it didn’t go perfectly. For a long time, I let perfectionism get the best of me, letting myself get so caught up in the web of details while I wrote or drew that I could no longer see the big picture. “Writing” became “going on Twitter for an hour. “Drawing” became “staring at a blank sheet of paper, then getting cookies.” I forgot that in order to make something great, you have to be willing to let go of the anxiety and let yourself make something crappy to mold into something amazing. Don’t let the fear of being perfect keep you from creating or promoting your product or just trying.

Without imperfection, we cannot improve or learn. And without imperfection, there is no art. Creativity is fueled by the imperfection we see in the world, an antidote to the imperfection we see in ourselves. If everything around us and within us was perfect, there would be no reason to reimagine our lives, world, and selves. So go. Make something. Tell your perfectionist self that nobody’s perfect, so you can be the most perfect imperfect being you can possibly be. 

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If you want to sell your designs in an online shop but have been too nervous about the cost of products – especially when they go unsold – then Artist Shops are perfect for you. With Artist Shops, we handle all of the manufacturing and shipping, giving you flexibility to experiment with what designs and marketing techniques work for you with none of the risk. A risk-free learning curve. Open a Shop right now!

We’re an artist community built on the power of helping each other succeed — if you’re reading this and have tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments! Thank you!

Illustrations done by the amazing Katie Lukes

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25 responses to Don’t Let Perfectionism Hold You Back

  1. Cattoc C says:

    Thanks for this article. I’m a perfectionist too and newcomer to the world of anxiety. Saved some of the lines you said to remind myself occasionally. I’ll try to remember those thanks when making new designs, so thanks.

    • Carlyn Hill says:

      Thank you for your comment! I’m so glad this helped. And welcome to the wonderful world of anxiety! haha Just make designs you’re passionate about and don’t let anxiety tell you otherwise! 🙂

  2. Andrew says:

    Perfectionism can be so debilitating that it stops some from even starting a project. The answer is, don’t think about the end result too much, and take small steps towards bringing your idea to life. Work out the bugs along the way and realize that a project is never finished.

    • Carlyn Hill says:

      ^ Exactly! That’s really great advice! The process and bumps along the road are what LEAD to the final result, so getting caught up in them prevents the organic process of creating! Thank you for this comment!

  3. Kirk says:

    As a long time graphic designer/artist I often bump up against that wall of perfectionism. The “I can do better – it could be better” syndrome. Then I utilize a great line from the movie “Babe”. “That’ll do pig… that’ll do.”

    • Carlyn Hill says:

      Omg that line is so perfect! And the “I can do better syndrome” struggle is so real, I know it well! Thank you for commenting!

  4. HHG says:

    Funny, I’ve been reading articles from many devoted experts on related topics, and this one just resonated with me. Especially these two lines:

    “Research has suggested that anxiety over making mistakes may ultimately be holding some perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place.” Making mistakes is seen as unacceptable because we internalize them as negative reflections of ourselves rather than what they are – part of the process.

    I think this is what typically holds me back from making progress and discourages me quickly. In fact, I’d push the opposite perspective: I’m not making enough mistakes. 😉 Thanks for the article!

  5. Celia says:

    So true, I think if you go to design school too, there is a push for that perfect portfolio. I distinctly remember being told not to put anything in your portfolio you are not 100% happy with. Well guess what, there is nothing I am ever 100% happy with.

    That is why I love challenges like inktober & Threadless. They are helping me loosen up and let my work out into the wild. You can see my inktober sketches on instagram if you are curious @flourish_and_flow

    • Carlyn Hill says:

      That’s so true! Plus art and writing are constantly changing as WE change, so being 100% happy with something assumes something is 100% perfect and final, which is never the case! Thank you for the comment! And I love your sketches! Your style is rad, just followed!

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