“I love making things, but I’m such a perfectionist that nothing ever gets done.”
I hear (and read) this sentiment in one form or another quite a bit when I hang around with creative people. It’s something that has become ingrained into the creative/artistic mindset for a number of years now, and yet, I don’t think it’s necessarily true. There are perfectionists, absolutely, and perfectionists can hinder their own progress on projects by never being satisfied, and thus never being done with their work.
However, perfecting a piece of work and starting a piece of work are two very different things. In order to be a perfectionist, you first have to have something to perfect. Too often, I think we as artists and creators use the word “perfectionist” when what we mean is “procrastinator.”
Deciding to not start a project unless everything aligns perfectly is a terrific trick we play on ourselves before beginning anything that’s difficult. While planning is an absolutely necessary stage in any artistic process, that planning doesn’t do any good without some form of action. It’s perfectly okay to say that you are being a perfectionist with, say, your movie if you continuously work on the script. If you constantly build up something, only to tear it down and start again, that, to me, is being a perfectionist.
Much like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in the film Synecdoche, New York, who falls into a years-long process of building an ever-larger stage play that eventually comes to represent everything and everyone he knows, so too can our work consume us, and we refuse to let it go into the world until it is exactly what we want. And what we want will change as the work changes, thus never becoming perfect. It’s an old trope, but it’s still true that perfect is the enemy of the good.
However, it’s very easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re in a perfectionist loop when what we’re in fact doing is putting off the process of creation at all. If no words are put to paper, if no video is filmed onto a memory card, if not one note is put into a symphony, then we think we are holding the perfect version of our art in our minds until it’s ready to be born. And that’s a lie.
Art or creative work can only have value when it is let out into the world. An imperfect sculpture is still better than granite that hasn’t been taken from the quarry because the artist is too afraid to begin. And the idea that what we have in our heads is somehow perfect is also a lie. There is nothing perfect about an idea that hasn’t been tested or attempted; the perfection is in the fact that it will always be undone.