Aiming for excellence in your chosen field is the sign of a Master craftsman in the making . . . but striving for perfectionism almost always guarantees a zero return on your efforts. If sheer output stands as a legacy of living a full creative Life, then the only thing a perfectionist typically has to show for his/her good intentions are a bunch of projects left undone.
I can certainly attest to this dangerous habit from my own experience. Like a lot of kids, I loved to draw when I was young, but sooner or later, the idea of being perfect became all-consuming. The sense of joy and freedom that drawing brought eventually morphed into not only a subconscious desire to please others, but a growing criticism of myself and the imagined worthiness of my abilities. Sadly, countless drawings - instead of being finished - were simply tossed into the waste basket. In my eyes, if they weren’t perfect, they were bad.
It was only a matter of time then before perfectionism paralyzed my creative spirit. For 14 years, between the ages of 18 and 32, I produced very little creative work. I dabbled a bit with photography and took an acting class here and there, but that’s as far as I was willing to go. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d stumbled blindly into a barren wasteland of my own design. It was only by the grace of my own willpower - and perhaps karma - that I eventually found a way out.
At its core, perfectionism is - according to author Brene Brown in her bestselling book Daring Greatly - rooted in shame, stemming from a deep-seated belief implanted from an early age that “you’re simply not good enough.” Perfectionism reeks of low self-esteem which invariably leads to procrastination . . . a lethal one-two punch that explains why perfectionists accomplish very little, if anything at all.
And yet, when it comes to being creative, it’s often those very artistic short-comings - ‘blunders’ for lack of a better word - that make an artist’s work all at once interesting, unique, and most importantly, very human. To illustrate that observation, here’s a few well-known examples of some famous creative ‘flubs’ . . .
Famed illustrator/painter Norman Rockwell created some of the most enduring American images of the 20th Century, but in this piece from 1930, the artist accidentally gave the man on the far left wearing the red shirt . . . a third leg. Look closely at where his right hand rests and then notice the mysterious third appendage directly behind it. Whoops.
Arguably the most revered artist in recorded history, Renaissance painter, architect, and sculptor Michelangelo stood head and shoulders above the rest of his 16th Century contemporaries. But when Pope Julius II commissioned the then 38 year-old master to build the Pontiff’s tomb in 1513, he didn’t expect a 7-foot statue of the biblical Moses complete with a pair of horns atop his head. I’m guessing that probably wasn’t intentional . . .
And yet, despite even an artist’s best efforts, sometimes ‘missing the mark’ makes for a more effective result in the eyes of the public. Take the famed cantina scene from George Lucas’ 1977 space-western Star Wars.
As one more thing that didn’t go as planned during the struggling production, Lucas had high hopes for the story’s seminal turning point when Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker meet Han Solo and Chewbacca over a few drinks at the Mos Eisley watering hole. Lucas originally envisioned a crowded bar complete with all sorts of bizarre aliens cavorting about, but his chief mask-maker was laid up with the flu, so when it came time to shoot the scene, many of the creatures weren’t even close to being ready for action.
Forced to improvise a new approach on the spot, Lucas wound up shooting the aliens under dimmer light than he initially intended. In interviews following the film’s release, Lucas felt that the scene had been compromised by circumstances - which it had - but it also made for a more evocative environment . . . one whose lack of lighting helped create a setting awash in shadow, mystery, and danger. As it turned out, the Star Wars cantina scene was better because it wasn’t perfect.
Perfectionism’s not only dangerous to your creativity; it’s an illusion. As the examples above show, even the very best among us make mistakes now and again. And in some cases, mistakes can turn out to be blessings in disguise. Michelangelo, Rockwell, and Lucas all strove to do their very best work, but by no means were they perfectionists. If they had been, their creative dreams would have remained permanently ‘on hold.’
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