Elizabeth Gilbert: Perfectionism Kills Creativity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Big Magic" by Elizabeth Gilbert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is your tendency towards perfectionism getting in the way of your ability to be creative? How does perfectionism hinder creativity?

One of the greatest mental obstacles to creativity is perfectionism. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to attain perfection in the creative realm—there will always be a way someone can find your work lacking. It’s therefore pointless to strive for perfection and better just to create something imperfect and put it into the world. 

In this article, we’ll look at how perfectionism kills creativity and how not to let it get in the way of your creative work.

Don’t Fall for Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a nefarious psychological ailment because it appears to be a good thing: You seem to simply be holding yourself to a high standard. But in reality, perfectionism is a manifestation of the fear of not being worthy.You don’t believe that you deserve to exist as you are and therefore put the onus on your work to earn you that right by being perfect. 

Perfectionism kills creativity by stopping a project dead in its tracks or preventing you from even starting it for fear it won’t be perfect, and that is the worst possible way to honor an idea. 

Brené Brown’s Take on Perfectionism

Brené Brown discusses perfectionism at length in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, diving more deeply than Gilbert into the psychological underpinning of perfectionism

Brown states, like Gilbert, that perfectionism is founded on the belief that you aren’t inherently good enough. But Brown goes on to claim that perfectionism isn’t just a way to earn your right to exist—it’s also a way to control how others perceive you. Perfectionists don’t want to be seen as different or aberrant, so they work extra hard to project normalcy and perfection. This kicks off a vicious cycle: Because you will never succeed in appearing perfect all the time, you blame and shame yourself for not conforming. This shame leads you to try even harder to be perfect, which you, again, cannot succeed at. Perfectionism thus negatively impacts your life in every way. 

Brown agrees with Gilbert that ultimately, striving for perfection is pointless, and she recommends that you be compassionate with yourself to fight perfectionism. Don’t try to hide your imperfections or punish yourself for having them. Instead, embrace them through, for instance, positive self-talk.

Perfectionism is hard to get over, though. Here are a few habits you can develop to reduce its impact on your work:

Be Realistic

Gilbert says you can reduce perfectionism’s impact by being realistic about what you can accomplish in the time you can allot to your creativity. Decide what you can reasonably finish, and then don’t force yourself to do more or spend more time on it. 

A Different Way to Manage Time and Expectations

Gilbert advocates for changing your perspective on your productivity: In other words, don’t expect more from yourself than you can reasonably accomplish in a set amount of time. There are other time management approaches out there, though, that aim to increase productivity: in other words, do more with the time you have. 

For example, Stephen Covey’s First Things First focuses on improving how you spend your time rather than increasing the amount of work you accomplish. One way he proposes that you do that is by distinguishing between tasks that are important—necessary to the achievement of personal goals—and tasks that are urgent—requiring your immediate attention but not necessarily related to your goals. Then, work to prioritize tasks that are important over urgent, so you are more often pursuing the meaningful goals in your life.

Learn to Let Go

Another way to curb perfectionism is to exercise your “release” muscle, says Gilbert. When you find yourself tweaking to get something to be “just right,” stop yourself and leave minor imperfections as they are. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert advises learning to let go and stop fixing mistakes but doesn’t propose ways to practice this skill. One way you might consider strengthening your “let go” muscle is through improvisational (improv) comedy. Improv encourages you to make bold choices on the fly. Once you’ve made a choice, you’re forced to deal spontaneously with the outcome however you can.)

Take Pride in Finishing

Take pride in the completion of a project rather than in its attainment of some ideal to curb perfectionism, recommends Gilbert. Many creators do not complete projects, and finishing is an achievement in itself. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert proposes that you learn to take pride in finishing a project, even if it’s not perfect. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown presents the same argument but using shame, rather than pride, as her starting point. Brown proposes you develop shame resilience, the ability to normalize and accept shame, in your creative and life pursuits. When you finish a project that doesn’t fully live up to your standards, shame resilience, like pride, lets you move on with a minimal amount of negative feeling.)

Don’t Fear Feedback 

Gilbert emphasizes that nothing bad will happen if you release something imperfect. Most of the time, others are too caught up in their own work and lives to pay much attention to your creative output. If they do pay attention, it will be fleeting. 

(Shortform note: The rise of the internet in some ways complicates Gilbert’s belief that no one will care (for long) if you release something imperfect. In 2011, thirteen-year-old Rebecca Black’s music video “Friday” became a viral sensation, viciously mocked all across the internet for its imperfect imitation of the music video style of the time. The video is still referenced in pop culture today. It’s unlikely that most creative projects could provoke Friday-level ire, but it’s still worth thinking long and hard about releasing creative work on the internet.)

Take Joy in Moving On

Gilbert finally urges you to take joy in the abundant ideas floating around the universe and the prospect of encountering and starting something new. A creative life is one in which you create many things. Perfectionism prevents you from doing this by gluing your attention to the same project. 

(Shortform note: Tunnel vision is a psychological phenomenon that can prevent you from moving on to a new project in the way Gilbert describes. It’s a stubborn focus on one task or project that prevents us from taking in new information, and it’s based on existential fear: We cling to projects because we fear what will happen to us if they don’t end up perfect. One way to combat tunnel vision is by writing down your overarching goal in a place you’ll look at often (for instance: “Submit short film to competition”). This is a constant reminder to re-focus on the big picture, rather than getting stuck on details.)

Do Something Else for a Bit

The final mental obstacle to creativity Gilbert mentions is the feeling of being stymied or uninspired. When you find yourself struggling to progress for any reason, find a different creative pursuit to engage with temporarily. This pursuit should be in a different medium than your original pursuit, says Gilbert. By engaging in a creative activity you have no prior investment in, and in which you don’t care if you do well or not, you often become able to re-access your creative playfulness. That playfulness can then find its way into your original project, unblocking you. 

For instance, if you’re struggling to finish your work of historical nonfiction, you might take up learning the harmonica. Because you’ve never thought about the harmonica before or been able to establish any goals or feelings around harmonica-playing, it won’t matter to you if you play well or not. Once you’ve achieved a carefree attitude toward the harmonica, you can take that attitude back to your work of nonfiction. 

An Argument for Doing Nothing

Gilbert says that if you’re experiencing difficulties in your main creative pursuit, you should switch to a different one for a while and not just sit idle. It’s possible, though, that doing nothing at all, rather than doing something new, can help you regain your creativity more effectively. Studies have shown that “idle” activities, like daydreaming, can actually promote creativity. Letting your thoughts roam, rather than focusing them on a task, also enhances your problem-solving abilities, meaning you may be more likely, not less, to overcome an obstacle in your creative work. 
Idleness also helps when you feel burned out on a creative project. Doing nothing lets you replenish your energy and regain a measure of productivity and momentum to bring to your creative pursuit. 
Elizabeth Gilbert: Perfectionism Kills Creativity

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Big Magic summary:

  • Why integrating creativity into your daily life will make you feel more fulfilled
  • Why creating for money is a form of self-sabotage
  • Why you should never focus on external validation of your creations

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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