More Perfectionism

Continuing the conversation from last week, I’d like to share my favorite story about perfectionism, from the book Art and Fear, by Bayles and Orland. Although the authors frame perfection specifically in terms of artists, their observations apply to perfectionism of any kind. And if you read it closely you will likely find something in it which resonates. Enjoy!

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of the work they produced; all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A,” forty pounds a “B,” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an “A.” Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work–and learning from their mistakes–the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error. [Similarly, life is human; error is human; ergo, life is error]. Inevitably, your work will be flawed. Why? Because you are a human being, and only human beings, warts and all, make art. Without warts it is not clear what you would be, but clearly you wouldn’t be one of us.

Nonetheless, the belief persists among some artists (and lots of ex-artists) that doing art means doing things flawlessly–ignoring the fact that this prerequisite would disqualify most existing works of art. Indeed, it seems vastly more plausible to advance the counter principle, namely that imperfection is not only a common ingredient in art [and life], but very likely an essential ingredient. Ansel Adams, never one to mistake precision for perfection, often recalled the old adage that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” his point being that if he waited for everything in the scene to be exactly right, he’d probably never make a photograph.

Adams was right: to require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do–away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing you should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot do such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the pattern achieves perfection–a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary and universal humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept. For you, the seeds of your next work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current work. Such imperfections are your guides–valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides–to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your work into the real world, and gives meaning to both.

So why not start now?

One thought on “More Perfectionism

  1. Pingback: Why Self-Help Bores Me « Why Not Start Now?

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