Perfectionist or Procrastinator?

“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.

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2 thoughts on “Perfectionist or Procrastinator?”

  1. I do think that in some ways perfectionism is tied up with procrastination because while an idea is still in your head & not put out in the world for anyone to judge, it is perfect. I say perfect because it (and you) can never, ever fail. As an example, I enjoy making cards to give to friends & they have been very positively received but one of the most difficult/scary things I did last year was say “yes” when a friend asked me to create Christmas cards to give to her family. Luckily, she asked about 3 weeks prior to Christmas & they had to be mailed across the country so I had no time to think about my answer. She’s a friend so I wanted to do this for her & I had very little time so I sat at my table & started making cards with no time to keep asking “is this good enough?”, “will they like it?”etc. I made 30 cards in 3 days & they were a huge hit with her family but if I had had a month to do the cards, I would have procrastinated until I had no choice but to do it for fear of not producing the perfect cards I want to make.

    Maybe I am tying up perfectionism with fear of failure or humiliation because it’s not so much that I want something to be “perfect” as that I want it to be universally loved & never criticized, an impossibility. Unless you are named George…and you are a cat. 😀

    1. Yes, I think that there’s a bit of perfectionism built into procrastinators, but I think the main difference is what you’re talking about. If something is perfect in your mind, it’s easy to avoid starting, but what you have in your mind isn’t something you’re actively perfecting, if you see what I mean. Creation is all about action, to me. So many people say that they are “aspiring writers” or “aspiring artists,” but the aspiration is as far as they get.

      Thanks for the comment! I appreciate it!

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