How Perfectionism Stifles Your Creativity

Our culture is obsessed with perfectionism, specifically individualized perfectionism. The concept is undoubtedly driven into us through the institutions of education. Why else would mastering 70% of the material in a class be considered borderline failing? Our media paints a similar picture, showing off the achievements of idealized people, with no question of the massive privilege that allowed them to achieve it. With this comes several pervasive capitalist ideas. For example, the idea that you must produce labor to exist without suffering is a myth, at best. And let's not forget the lies that anyone can easily be successful if you just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or the very concept of success as being identified as better than everyone else in a certain field, all misconceptions which contribute to and are reinforced by perfectionism.

Very often, we fear taking risks and failure. This keeps us from learning and growing; it keeps us from doing activities we might enjoy. And very rarely do we ask ourselves “What if I succeed?”

As a child, I was constantly told I was “smart” and “gifted” by well-meaning adult relatives. But I wasn’t better than the other students. I wasn’t inherently more intelligent. Sure, I might have picked some concepts up faster than others, but intelligence is far more complex than that.

Now, talent is a complex topic to discuss. Do they play that instrument better than you because they’re just “more talented?” Or is it because they’ve been able to take lessons since childhood? Is that artist you admire just incredible, or is it because they’ve worked tirelessly, practicing their art every day, even when they don’t want to?  We often just look at the person’s skill and ignore the winding path everyone has taken to get where they are.

The dichotomy is especially clear with math, you either “get it” and are “smart,” or you “don’t get it” and give up. In reality, I’d guess that skill in math has a lot less to do with innate talent, and much, much more to do with the way you were taught, and the way you learn.

The reality is, I had several expectations of perfection in school, I had time to read and learn at home, and my family had the money and time to both afford books and to help teach me things. Because of those invisible advantages, I worked in school and put my effort towards learning, causing me to excel, at least in those confines. This caused me to invest a large part of my identity in my intelligence, when asked about myself I could not avoid discussing school and classes. Fast forward a few years, and the expectations I put on myself and that were thrust upon me led me to become a perfectionist who panicked when I didn’t immediately do well in classes. I’d give up on learning something immediately after my first big mistake, and, for a depressed, anxious teenager entering high school, this spelled obvious disaster. After dropping out, and getting my GED, I entered college, where I quickly realized I had no idea how to study or learn new topics, and learning to learn had a pretty steep learning curve, funnily enough.

I’m terrible at many things, and the only way to stop being terrible at them is to try. Throw yourself into something you want to learn, keep going even if you fail again and again. If you learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat the, you’re going to get good at it eventually. And chances are, you’re already better at it than you realize. And don’t judge your improvement on what others have achieved. Even if it’s the difference between running a fourteen-minute mile and a twelve-minute mile, or the difference between barely getting out of bed to going to your classes and panicking, you're getting better at it, and that's what matters.

But remember that you don’t have to get better at it if you’re happy where you are. You don’t have to take lessons to learn to sing along to your favorite songs in the car, just sing and have a good time. Putting effort into the skills you value and enjoy is wonderful, but doing things badly can be equally rewarding, the key is your expectations.

Your writing doesn’t have to be profound and powerful for it to get your point across, and enrich your life, or the lives of others. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to benefit from exercise. You can be absolutely tone-deaf and still sing songs in the rain. Just because you aren’t doing it perfectly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Hell, just because you aren’t doing it “right” doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

The point is, we need to be more accepting of failure, and less reliant on the pedestal of perfection. Even Olympic athletes aren’t perfect at what they do, they’re just quite good at it. And many things can’t be quantified that way at all. Someone might see art that you hate and think it’s stunning and profound and intriguing. I often hate my own art, because I see what it may have been if I’d done everything perfectly, but the very act of creating something is worth doing.

Make awful art, wear clashing outfits, put on ridiculous make-up. Play video games on easy, exercise even if you can’t do a single push-up. Sing and dance and write poetry no matter how dumb it feels, or how bad you feel you are at it. If you’re testing yourself and expanding your comfort zone, you’re going to learn new things about yourself and the world. There are so many ways to express yourself and create and put life into the world around you, don’t let the fear of failure scare you into stagnating.

 

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