For Better Creativity, Stop Trying So Hard

How to turn perfectionism into a strength.

Photo by russn_fckr on Unsplash

Criticism is good at two things:

  1. Blocking bad ideas.

It’s no secret that creative people are perfectionists. Everything we create is so personal- this isn’t just any work we’re creating. It’s pieces of our soul.

Some argue that perfectionism is what helps high-achieving creatives do so much.

But if trying really hard to be good was all it took, we’d have a lot less headache. Creative work isn’t so simple.

I first noticed a paradox while pursuing a ballet career.

In my teens, I craved ‘making it’ so badly. Ballet is a small but competitive industry. So I’d constantly train, stretch, and research the latest sports science. All in an effort to get better.

Though I was training every day, I wasn’t that good. My art was decent. That’s it. Frustration would eat me up. I’d lie awake wondering why I still wasn’t good or talented.

How were others so much better than me when I was working this hard?

Eventually, I burnt out and moved back in with my parents. In my recovery, I learned three things.

  1. That my beliefs about life are often wrong.

When I danced, I wanted to be good so badly. The pressure was ruining me. My expectations of myself were so high and unforgiving that it was impossible to live up to them.

Too much pressure will slow you down. Perfectionism disrupted my creativity. It made my dancing worse.

Nowadays, though I barely train, I dance much better, because I don’t feel that pressure anymore.

How ironic. Now that I no longer want a ballet career, I actually have the talent to pursue it.

Artists face a paradox — to put in the work, you have to want to be good, but if you want to be good too badly you’ll get stifled.

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The cycle of perfectionism

1. Wanting to be good too badly

Wanting to be good is a good thing. It keeps you disciplined and motivated.

It can also turn into a weakness. This happens when you stop wanting to be good and start needing to be. When flaws aren’t allowed, fear will step into your mind.

2. This turns to pressure

Pressure turns detrimental when it causes fear. Fear initiates a ‘fight or flight’ response, which limits your creative ability regardless of what you’re doing.

3. Pressure makes failure scary

Trying too hard to be good makes us less willing to take risks, without risk there’s no discovery.

It’s easy to make something decent if it's been done a thousand times before. I could become another person writing a listicle on trendy personal development strategies. But would that really be meaningful or beneficial to the world?

4. Self-criticism is encouraged by the ‘suffering artist’ trope

It’s seductive to think that your own pain directly causes your creative talent. But your suffering doesn’t really have value.

It’s easier to believe that because then you can become complacent in your pain instead of actively fighting against it.

But what if your self-criticism isn’t helping you as much as you think it is? What if the idea of the overly-critical-but-talented-artist is a myth?

Okay, you get it. Being in a creative field is confusing. It’s full of opposing truths and frustrating paradoxes. But there is something you can do about it.

Working on your mindset will improve your creative work. By approaching problems with the right state of mind, you can become immune. Honing your emotional tools will hone your creative ones too.

Here are five reminders to help you re-adjust your mindset so it works for you, not against you.

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1. Perfectionism becomes a strength when you set boundaries.

Being able to criticize yourself and let go of it in seconds is a superpower. That is how people are able to produce quality work, improve quickly, and pull off creative risks. They’re critical without judgment.

This is why you don’t brainstorm and edit at the same time. You need boundaries to separate mind frames that work against each other.

Separate when it’s time to create freely when it’s time to critique flaws, and when it’s time to tell yourself ‘chef, put your knives down’ and move on.

2. Negativity isn’t a big bad wolf.

‘Good work’ is subjective. Things only matter as much as you say they do. Although people share similar opinions as to what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ work, in the end, these are still opinions. And they are still subjective.

Trying to keep up with the tastes and opinions of every person is impossible.

The only way to avoid criticism is by doing nothing at all.

Even if you could create something without criticism, how meaningful could it possibly be if it elicits lukewarm reactions? The controversy is a sign that people are thinking. If nobody dislikes your work, no one is going to love it either.

3. You ≠ your work.

The things you create aren’t as personal as they feel. Though it might be a personal expression, your work’s value is not a reflection of your value.

You might make something that sucks. That doesn’t mean you suck. It doesn’t mean that everything you make sucks because if you keep trying eventually you’ll make something good.

When we stop taking the quality of our work so personally, we become exponentially freer in our creativity. We become willing to take risks. That way you can keep throwing stuff at the wall until you find out what sticks.

4. Everything is a process without a perfect ending.

Everything you create and do is a process. You can always get better, and you can always get worse.

We mistake ourselves by thinking that when we finish something, it is meant to be perfect. The truth is nothing is ever finished, and everything, no matter how good, is always flawed.

5. Imperfect things have value.

Just because something has flaws doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Some people’s favorite books have plot holes. Some critically acclaimed movies seem overrated.

It’s impossible to stop messing things up, but that doesn’t make things worthless.

6. Criticism is constructive when it’s empathetic

Criticism should have two words because there are two types of criticism.

One kind stems from judgment and insecurity. This criticism makes decisions based on fear. It doesn’t help you grow or improve anything.

The other kind is rooted in empathy. It comes from a loving place with a desire to improve for the sake of improving. This criticism isn’t afraid of mistakes but rather wants to learn from them.

The difference between constructive and detrimental criticism is whether it is based on love or fear. From empathy or from judgment. It’s okay to give yourself criticism, but be kind and empathetic with yourself. That’s how you see results.

From now on, instead of being motivated by fear, aim to simply enjoy the process.

What if you enjoyed the act of creativity as a manifestation of your own curiosities? No one really knows what they’re doing. We’re little messes of people, trying to learn or grow. It’s okay if you’re still figuring things out.

‘What would happen if I tried it this way?’ ‘Why does this exploration work better?’ ‘What is the most natural way to express the idea sitting in my mind?’.

Imagine the creative process of observation, without letting the ego butt in to interrupt and ask whether something is good or bad. Your work is not a personal reflection of whether you’re good or bad.

Hey, we’re both tiny specks in a universe full of stars that happened to exist at the same time. Cool!