Published in Creative Review.
Perfectionism is often touted as being a good thing, a sign that you are devoted to your work. But, Paul Jordan, Engine’s Executive Creative Director, argues it is in fact the opposite, and will only get in the way of you being at your most creative…
This piece almost wasn’t written because I’m a perfectionist. Well, a recovering perfectionist actually. Most of my adult life I’ve been nurturing, embracing and wielding perfectionism. Courting it under the misapprehension that it was a positive character trait. Who wouldn’t want to be perfect, right? Come on admit it. You’ve probably dabbled in a little perfectionism yourself. We’ve all done it – spent far too long polishing a turd that should have been flushed around the u-bend much earlier.
In the past, whenever I was called ‘Perfectionist Paul’ or ‘OCD ECD’ I used to smile along. “Good,” I thought, “they can see how much I care, how exacting my standards are, how I’m willing to stay up all night to craft the living shit out of this tiny small-space ad that barely anyone will ever see.” I thought being called a perfectionist was a compliment. Vainly proud of a badge I didn’t really understand.
During these perfectionist episodes, Kevin Chesters (my old CSO) would sagely remind me of the Persian carpet weavers. Master craftsmen of the world’s finest rugs, who would deliberately weave a single imperfection into every carpet. They did this because they believed that only Allah is perfect. So surely, even the most egotistical ECD couldn’t compare himself with God, could he?
It’s not always obvious to see what’s wrong with perfectionism though. I grew up adoring my perfectionist Dad. Granted he would frustrate the hell out of Mum as every small job around the house was done with the painstaking precision of a work of art. Even clearing out the roof gutters was executed to perfection. As a kid I would think, “Give him a break – he’s taking care in what he’s doing and it’s a magnificent job”. What I realise as a grown up is the gutters don’t need to be ‘magnificent’ – they just need to be clear. And while he took a week doing that job, there were five others that just weren’t getting done.
Perfectionism is creatively corrosive too. Not only does it eat away at our ability to get shit started. It is even worse when it comes to getting shit finished. Too often we can default to a kind of autopilot of perfectionism. Maniacally perfecting everything we work on, whether it warrants it or not. For fear that someone might point a bony finger at this one particular project and proclaim it anything less than brilliant. Well, I’m sorry but they can’t all be brilliant.
So, let’s be clear. Perfectionism is not a positive. It’s not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is a negative. It’s defensive and fuelled by fear of criticism, “If I make myself and everything I do perfect, then they can’t criticise me”. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown describes perfectionism as this heavy armour that we lug around everywhere thinking it will protect us. When in fact, it just weighs us down and holds us back. She goes on … “research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement. Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities.”
As a person with the word creative in my title, it’s the idea of these “missed opportunities” that really gets to me. That’s a huge price to pay for perfectionism. Maybe Arthur Jordan’s gutters can serve as a useful reminder to us here. While we are obsessively trying to perfect the unperfectable – there are probably another five projects we just don’t get started on. One of which could have the potential to be truly world changing. So, let’s pick our battles wisely. Save our energy for those projects that really deserve giving everything we got.
In the meantime, I’m going to embrace my very human imperfections and leave perfectionism to the gods.
Illustration: Simon Warden