How To Puncture The Power Of Perfectionism With One Little Word

Ah perfectionism. I’m sure you’ve come across it once or twice? When I say once or twice, I mean once or twice a minute. That’s how often it seems to make unrealistic demands of our creativity and constantly attack every last word, note or brush stroke until they’re exquisitely flawless.

Or, more likely, until we give up, exhausted and defeated and feeling like complete and utter artistic failures.

Perfectionism is one of the most dangerous and destructive creativity killers there is. But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that.

With one little word though, we can puncture perfectionism’s power, suck the wind right out of its sails, and free ourselves to create without such overbearing pressure and disapproval.

Balloon boy
image: M i x y

Think for a moment about when you’re working on a creative project. Say it’s a book. You might say, when people ask how your work is going, “I’m working on my book”. Which is fine, it’s true.

You might also say “I’m working on the book”. Also true.

The problem is when you say “my book” or “the book” it tends to end up sounding like THE book.

As in the only book you’ll ever write, the only shot you’ll get at writing a book in your whole life, your one chance at fame and glory and author immortality book.

Which already is beginning to up the pressure on it to be perfect in every possible way.

Obviously, substitute the word “book” for whatever your creative project is, the effect is the same.

So what if instead, when you were asked what you were creating, you replied: “I’m working on my NEXT book”?

The difference now is subtle but crucial.

By saying “next” you imply that this is only one of whole line of books. That after this “next” book you’ll be working on the next one.

Instantly the pressure starts to decrease, because this latest work, although obviously important to you, is not going to be the sum of every last ounce of your creative energy and talent distilled into one piece of art, meaning you’ll never create again afterwards.

This book, your next book, is just one chapter in the body of art you will create over your artistic lifetime.

It also helps you get focused entirely on the current project, despite what you might instinctively think.

Because this is your next project, it allows the possibility, in fact the inevitable certainty that there will be further projects after this. They might be in this same medium, or in others, most likely both.

When you’re thinking that this is your big one shot only masterpiece project, panic starts to set in. You can’t focus because you’re wondering if you’ve chosen the right project.

“If this is my big project, my great masterpiece, I HAVE to make sure I choose the right one, I have to make sure I’m developing the best idea I’ve ever had, the best idea anyone has ever had in the history of the world or there’s no point in creating anything.”

So when this happens, instead of picking one idea and giving it full focus, you begin with one, create for a while, then find these nagging doubts creeping in. “What if this isn’t the best idea I could be working on? What if I should pick that other one I liked?”

So you scrap what you’ve done already and switch to the other idea and begin again. Unfortunately, pretty soon the same mentality creeps in again. This is your big idea, it has to be perfect. Are you sure you’ve chosen the right one?

How can you possibly focus on this one project if you’re constantly questioning if it’s the right project?

It’s like going into a restaurant and picking one meal, having a couple of bites, then changing your mind and ordering something else. For a few moments you feel relieved and satisfied but then wonder again if you’ve picked the best most delicious dish on the menu. So you send it back an order again. Until you’ve gone through the whole menu and feel confused, anxious and more than a little sick from all that different food mixing around in your belly.

You’ll never enjoy eating ANYTHING if this is your approach.

This meal before you isn’t your last meal on earth, just like your next creative project isn’t the last one, the only one, you’ll ever create.

Instead, choose a meal you like the look of, relax, enjoy it, focus on the flavours and textures of the food, enjoy the atmosphere and the company.

Tomorrow, next weekend, next month, you’ll go out for another meal somewhere else, but tonight enjoy what’s here in front of you as fully as possible.

Exactly the same with your creative projects. Tell yourself (and anyone who asks) you’re working on your next book, or painting, or song, or dress, or film.

This one little word will make a big difference, enable you to get focused on the current project, and puncture perfectionism’s power in a moment.

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11 thoughts on “How To Puncture The Power Of Perfectionism With One Little Word”

  1. Oooh – this is great: “the difference between THE book and the NEXT book.” It’s amazing how big of a difference emotionally that one word can make — really changing your approach to the whole undertaking. I’m certainly not above a little trick for my subconscious now and again! 😉 Perfectionism is a huge problem for a lot of people (myself obviously included). I’m glad you’re furthering the crusade to end it.

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    1. Kristin I love that you used the word “crusade” – it does feel like that’s what I’m on in helping people be more creative.

      Language is so powerful, especially the subtleties, and especially the language we use about and directed at ourselves.

      Think my next ebook or course might have to be on How To Puncture The Power Of Perfectionism For Good… 🙂

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  2. Dan, thanks for this insightful piece. One little four-letter word can really change the way we approach our “output” by turning it into something that’s going to blend with the next creative action we choose. It gives one the sense of a non-stopping line of creative endeavors, not just spontaneous, infrequent pursuits. Brilliant!

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    1. Mary/ I was so busy focusing on how saying “next” takes the pressure off having to make something our one single lifetime masterpiece that I overlooked that additional bonus you’ve mentioned. It helps us work towards an ever evolving body of work that traces our artistic evolution…

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  3. Next is a very useful word. Not just in terms of the next project. But also the next time. When things don’t work out, maybe they will next time. You can snap your fingers as you say, “Maybe next time”. Does wonders for that sense of disappointment that comes when life throws you a curve.

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    1. Absolutely Jeanne. And next time you’ll have that bit more experience and wisdom to create the best you can. 🙂

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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  4. This is certainly a crucial insight…and I love the extra ideas in the comments here as well….But somehow ‘next’ doesn’t quite do it for me…If I say I’m working on my next painting, it makes me feel I sound as if I haven’t started it yet, that I am still in the incubation stage…Perhaps it works better with other media such as books, films or albums? Perhaps an alternative might be ‘New’ as in, “I’m working on a new painting.” ? Not a criticism, just a suggestion for anyone else for whom next doesn’t quite strike the right note! The concept is fab tho’ – simple and effective because what we say out loud about our work so affects how we feel about it.

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    1. That’s a great little tweak Cherry, I like it. Go with what works best for you, I’d always encourage that.

      I think when we use “next” with a book for example the implication is “the next book I’ll publish”, rather than the next book I’ll write, and it being one that I haven’t yet begun. That’s how I saw it. So you’d be in the process of writing, and would say “I’m currently working on my next book, it’s due to be published Summer 2011” for example. So there’s an inbuilt presupposition that you will finish it, publish it, then work on the next one after that. It implies a consistent output, there will always be my “last” artwork and my “next” one.

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  5. I really enjoyed this article! I like the word “next” because it’s putting out there that this is not the LAST and final great piece. As an artist, changing to and using the word ‘next” makes me feel like I have another million chances to create a painting…for instance,”Hello, this is the next painting in my mermaid series.” I like that much better than, “I am working on my mermaid painting.” It sounds so final, so – I better do a good job on this because it is the one…and that’s when that ugly voice comes in and starts telling us,”Don’t blow it, you only have one chance at this.”

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    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head with that last comment Margie, using “next” eliminates that pressure that comes from “this is your one and only chance!”

      Thanks for reading, and for your input.

      Like

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