How Perfectionism Hurts Creators

This essay was originally submitted as a graded assignment for my college writing course.

One might suggest that perfectionism is a good thing. The theory goes that perfectionism allows you to produce work that is better than the average person. It's often thought of as a desirable quality that allows for the creation of a one's best work. I challenge this assumption as a writer who oftentimes finds himself struggling, yes struggling, with perfectionism. I think of perfectionism as a vice far more often than I think of it as a virtue. Perfectionism is a form of procrastination. It is the bane of the existence of creative people everywhere.

Before we begin, we must define our terms. I define procrastination as "knowing what you must accomplish, and not doing it". I would define perfectionism as "the act of requiring something to be perfect". Based on my personal experience with both procrastination and perfectionism, these definitions offer us a simplified but accurate look at these two subjects. I offer myself as a test case for our theory that perfectionism is a form of procrastination.

I consider myself to be a writer. This is primarily a good thing but can lead to thinking in a manner which a writer should not. I commonly put off the very act of writing with a plethora of excuses. For instance, if I'm not in the mood to write, I'll use that as an excuse not to. I make the ridiculous assumption that most writers write because they are in the mood to do so. Here perfectionism rears its ugly head before the project has even begun. Instead of writing like I know I should, I do something else because my mood is not in the correct state. The reason this can be so deadly is because somewhere in the recesses of my brain I know that I hardly ever feel like writing. This lack of the perfect mood, environment, or idea can cause a project to not be completed despite my knowing that it must be done. You are now probably coming to the realization that this is exactly how we defined procrastination mere moments ago.

Another common instance of perfectionism often occurs after the preliminary draft stage. I often do not wish for anyone to see my work until it has reached a presentable state. This can be harmless to a point. Unfortunately, deadlines eventually render this approach untenable. When a paper is due to be graded, hiding my work becomes not only counter productive but also destructive.

There are other reasons perfectionism runs rampant among creative types. It can provide a false comfort. It's easy to think that perfectionism is responsible for keeping the bad stuff from ever seeing the light of day, and that the truly good creative work will eventually be allowed to float to the top. This is a false assumption. Perfectionism, by definition, does not allow you to reveal to the outside world something that is imperfect.

Perfectionism is such a terrible vice for creative people like myself. We as creators understand that creativity is not a machine; perfectionism assumes that it is. If perfectionism were a human standing over our shoulders, we would likely find its only job would be to endlessly encourage redoing something until perfection is achieved. This isn't the least bit helpful. In this sense perfectionism could actually be responsible for ruining your best creative work.

Perfection as a standard for humans is unrealistic. The definition of perfection varies from person to person. Thus the chances of achieving it become even more unrealistic. Let's not allow egregious expectations of perfectionism to get in the way of doing our best work. When we let perfection get in the way of doing good creative work we're, more often than not, left with nothing at all.

Reagan Knopp