Good creative pros take pride in attention to detail. We claim the title “perfectionist” as a birthright. Our clients expect perfection, and it’s our job to deliver. At the same time, our job is to be creative on demand, which requires us to let our creative spirits loose and take action, even if it’s messy and imperfect. There’s an inherent conflict here, and it’s gotten more than one creative pro in trouble. Naturally, messiness has no place in finished client work, but perhaps even more damaging, focusing too much on the perfectionist part is a good way to choke the life out of your creativity. Think about it: nothing in life will ever be perfect, so if perfection is your standard, you’re liable to tie yourself in knots. No matter how good you are at what you do, there’s an inevitable gap between your ideal vision and what you’re able to create in reality. When your ideal vision is one of perfection, it can be painfully paralyzing. I should know; I’m the poster child for perfectionist paralysis.
A (Recovering) Perfectionist’s Story
Back in the 1990s, I parlayed my art and design skills into a freelance business, creating artworks and graphic design on commission, primarily for private clients. I got into this job because I loved making art, loved playing and exploring with color, shape, and line. Over the years, though, as my business grew, I found myself playing less and less. I’d sit down at my drafting table, hungry to make something for the love of it like I used to, but nothing I attempted felt good enough. My perceived inadequacy became so painful that eventually I just stopped trying. The only creating I did was on a deadline, at the behest of clients, and to their specifications.
Art became “just a job.”
I was a hired gun, no longer created for the joy of it. I had completely lost touch with my creative spirit, and I was burning out, fast. I told myself the problem was simply that I didn’t have time to play anymore, but that was merely a convenient excuse. The truth was, perfectionism had me frozen. I could make my clients happy, but never myself. Sometimes I wondered if I should just quit. I think some part of me understood that my continual striving for perfection was making me miserable, but I couldn’t seem to let it go. I prided myself on being a perfectionist!
Letting go of perfectionism felt like letting myself go, the creative pro equivalent of the sexy single gal who, once married, deteriorates into a frumpy, overweight housewife in a house-dress and curlers.
It wasn’t until I was well into my 40s that I finally realized that while perfectionism may have its place (in small doses, when making sure all details have been tended to, for example), in order to create our best work and to live our happiest, most fulfilling lives, we also need to learn to embrace imperfectionism. I now consider myself a recovering perfectionist, and a self-proclaimed imperfectionism evangelist.
Let me assure you, however, that by imperfectionism I do not mean sloppiness. Imperfectionists still pursue mastery and excellence; we just don’t allow the pursuit of perfection to paralyze us. Embracing imperfectionism simply means no more waiting until you or your work is perfect, but acknowledging that it will never be perfect, and starting anyway—now.
In other words, imperfectionism means not letting "perfect" be the enemy of "done."
It means allowing yourself to create crap, knowing that we need crap in order to fertilize the good stuff, while also understanding that just because you allow yourself to create crap doesn’t mean you will. What it does mean is that you’ll create more stuff, and the more stuff you create, the better you’ll get at it.
Imperfectionism also means understanding that as a creator, it is not your job to judge your own work; your job is to create what is calling to you to be created, period. If you’re a creative pro, of course you also need to please your clients, but imperfectionists understand that ultimate value doesn’t always have anything to do with technical skill, and even if you can’t stand what you’ve created, you never know how it may affect someone else.
One of the greatest gifts I’ve gotten from my imperfectionism is discovering that putting imperfect stuff out in the world is really gratifying! I used to think I had to wait until everything was perfect before sharing my work, which meant that I never shared anything at all (face it, I never created anything at all, unless a client deadline was breathing down my neck!) What I’ve learned from sharing my work is that feedback from others helps me take off my hyper-critical glasses, and see my imperfect work through their eyes, which has, in turn, helped me to appreciate it more.
The truth is, other people see your work for what it is; you see your work for what it isn’t.
Ultimately, imperfectionism is a life philosophy steeped in self-compassion, and as I’ve discovered over the past few years, it’s a helluva lot more fun than being a perfectionist. Converting to imperfectionism is a much kinder, gentler way to live.
Using Imperfectionism to Create the Imperfectionist Manifesto
Back in 2011, when I was starting to make a conscious effort to really embrace imperfectionism in my own life, I wrote a blog post, titled “The Imperfectionist Manifesto,” in which I hashed out a number of the ideas I’ve shared here. It occurred to me that these ideas would make a great poster. “Gee, maybe I’ll make one someday,” I thought… but I never did. Two and a half years later I realized that there was really only one thing between me and a finished Imperfectionist Manifesto poster: wait for it….
As I wrote in a later blog post:
A manifesto poster must be awesome (I thought). It must be remarkable! Amazing! And that felt so far beyond my abilities that, without quite realizing why I was doing so, I shelved the idea entirely. The patterns of perfectionism run so deep, they tick away even when we’re not consciously aware of them. Which is why I’m such a strong proponent of imperfectionism! Perfectionism poisons our lives, stunts our growth, keeps us trapped in a tiny, little box, afraid to move. But when you’ve been in that box your whole life, it feels normal—safe, even. It takes ongoing effort to bust out of the perfectionist box. Imperfectionism is the antidote.
So I took a page from my own book. I determined to make that poster, and set my sights on done, rather than perfect. As a calligrapher, I knew I wanted the final artwork to be written by hand, but first, I created a mockup in the computer, using Adobe InDesign. Here’s an early-ish version:
And, after lots of tweaking of the layout and moving lines around, here’s the final comp:
I printed this final mockup—four sheets of letter paper—and taped them together to use as my visual guide and as a guard beneath my writing hand while doing the calligraphy.
Right below my pen you’ll also see one of the hazards of using a guide like this: in the second line of calligraphy — a glaring mistake!
After a moment of annoyance, I had a good laugh. I’d kind of hoped to be able to hang the original artwork on my wall, but the real product was going to be the posters that came out of the printable digital file, and I knew I’d be fixing that up in Photoshop anyway. And how poetically appropriate to make an early mistake like this on an Imperfectionist Manifesto!
Here's the finished camera-ready art:
Now that the original artwork was done, it was time to get this puppy digitized, so I could muck around with it in Photoshop. Since the art was about 17×22, and my scanner is a bit more than letter size, I had to scan in four passes, which, layered roughly in Photoshop, looked like this:
(As you can see from the crazy colors going on here, I’m overdue for a new scanner… What a mess!)
If I’d been smart, and more patient, I’d have paid a pro to get a high quality digital capture in one pass, but I was eager to get this done, so I dove into making this big, ol’ mess look pretty. Dozens of Photoshop adjustment layers later, I had some images that I was starting to feel good about!
Here are the final images that I used for print-on-demand posters in my Zazzle shop:
As with so much in life, imperfectionism is a practice, and the first step is awareness. My adventure with the Imperfectionist Manifesto poster was a triumph for me in practicing imperfectionism, as well as practicing my Golden Formula: self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good.
The first step is awareness, which was when I managed to notice that I was stalling due to perfectionism. Then I managed to stop stalling, forgive myself for stalling, and make something, knowing that it would be imperfect—the self-compassion piece.
I hope the Imperfectionist Manifesto helps you thaw out any places where you’re frozen by perfectionist paralysis, and I hope you’ll join me in the ranks of the Imperfectionists.
Melissa Dinwiddie is an artist, writer, performer, inspirationalist and creativity instigator, on a mission to empower people to feed their creative hungers. She coaches and consults with individuals and groups, and leads creativity workshops and retreats in inspiring locations around the world as well as online. Get a FREE PDF of Melissa's Keys to Creative Flow and Imperfectionist Manifesto at Living A Creative Life at melissadinwiddie.com. You can also purchase larger sizes and different colors of her Imperfectionist Manifesto at her Zazzle shop.
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