Episode 4


The Prison of Perfectionism in Creativity

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Free yourself from the prison of creative perfectionism! Being a perfectionist was once seen as a good thing but over the years research and experience has shown it to be quite the opposite and can hold you back from progressing with your work...

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The Prison of Perfectionism in Creativity

Free yourself from the prison of perfectionism! That’s what I’m talking about today on The Positive Creatives!


Hey there, Adam here, and welcome to a new episode of The Positive Creatives!

Thanks to everyone who messaged me after last week’s episode about goal setting! I do like hearing from you because I’m deliberately not checking any of the stats for this podcast so when I get a message it shows me that someone listened, which is always nice!

A couple of the people who messaged said I’d not really said what my goals are going to be this year for my creativity and while that might seem odd considering I did an episode all about goal setting, I’m trying not to make this podcast too much about me and just giving you stuff to go away and think about… But I’ll tell you my overriding goal this year is to just go with the flow. See where the year takes me. Especially because we don’t really know what’s going to happen when the pandemic comes to an end, or when that’s going to be!

This podcast is new, and is a pure passion project, so I just want to make the episodes and enjoy it.

My photography career, especially with weddings, is effectively on hold until who knows when but hopefully I’ll be back doing that soon, and when I do I really want to focus my energy on being in the moment and enjoying it rather than anything specific. I don’t know whether what inspires me might have changed, and I’m excited to find out.

During the pandemic I’ve rejigged my entire business life so it’s less about tactics and more about enjoying the flow of creativity. So I’m not really setting rigid goals at all this year because after so much change I just feel like I need to see how everything settles and what feels right.

So my goal, as I shared on an instagram reel this week, is to just keep making. Stay focused on creativity, without distraction, and go with the flow. Right now it feels good and right, but I might make goals mid-year because like I said last week, you don’t have to make your goals in January and even if you do they’re not set in stone and you can bin them off or add to them whenever you feel like it!

I also mentioned before that I’m not checking the stats for this podcast so I don’t know if anyone is listening each week or whether it’s more or less than the previous week. You might think that’s a weird thing to do, especially if I tell you in my career before photography I was an analyst and all through my creative career I’ve been obsessed with numbers.

It turns out pandemics put a lot of things into perspective and I just want to get back to being a creative for the sake of being a creative, and not worrying about who or how many people like what I’m doing. I figure if I like it and I’m doing it for genuine reasons, other people might like it, and if they do that’s cool. But if I’m enjoying myself, learning new things, and nobody’s listening I’ve kind of made peace with myself that that’s kind of cool too. I still feel like I’m leaving some kind of legacy if that makes any sense whatsoever!

But, if you are listening and you do like it, do me a favour and tell your friends to have a listen too!

But basically what I’m saying is forget the numbers. You know what they say – lies, damned lies and statistics. That’s my new philosophy! For now at least, you can be sure I’ll tell you if it changes, and I’ll confess to you I promise if I do end up caving in and checking the listener stats. But like I said if you’re there and you’re listening that’s good enough for me. And I’m having fun researching and recording the episodes! Win win!

So anyway, onto the topic of this week… I wanted to talk about perfectionism. Are you a perfectionist? Do you describe yourself as a perfectionist, and if you do is that a good or a bad thing?

I mentioned that before my creative career I had a corporate career and for a lot of that I was an analyst, basically making numbers say what my bosses wanted them to say to keep them in a job!

So yeah I had real jobs at big companies, but I got bored quite often so I’d change jobs and companies once every couple of years, usually before I got myself into trouble because I had a reputation of being quite difficult to manage!

Anyway, that meant I had a lot of interviews. And I was one of those fortunate people who was just naturally good at interviews. I had a friend who was far more talented than me, way more knowledgeable and better at his job, but his nerves took over at interviews, and he just wasn’t very good at them. His career took off once he got some coaching and mentoring in interview technique if you’re interested, so if you’ve randomly stumbled on this podcast looking for interview tips, there you go. Get some interview training. You can thank me later.

Anyway, I was saying I had a lot of interviews and usually I ended up getting the job.

I remember back then it wasn’t such a cliche but often in an interview you’d be asked what’s your biggest strength and what’s your biggest weakness. And I remember – and tell me if you did this too – I’d always say “I’m a perfectionist” for both and I had a kind of pre-prepared spiel about why it was good to be a perfectionist and why it was bad.

Sounds so cliche these days, but back then I’m telling you it worked an absolute charm, and people always seemed impressed by it! But I didn’t really mean it… I was just saying it because, well, who wants to admit they have weaknesses really, especially in an interview, and what I was actually saying was that I was a perfectionist and that’s a good thing…

But is it a good thing? For a long long time I actually thought it was.

I talked a few episodes ago about the Dunning Kruger effect, and the kind of psychological cycle it takes when you think you’re good at something before you’ve tried it, and it’s not until you start that you realise you’re really not good at it at all. I won’t go into it again but go back and have a listen to that episode as I think it’s really interesting…

When I started my photography journey I was naturally quite terrible at it but incredibly passionate and experimental in my approach. I would try every technique going, I was blind to a lot of the judgement in the industry so if I thought it was cool I’d try it, and if it turned out not to be cool I’d never try it again… and that’s how my first year or so as a photographer went. No consistency or style but looking back I made some quite cool work, really by being not very good, not knowing what I was doing and blindly experimenting all the time.

As my technical skills got better and I started to listen more to the industry about what was good, what wasn’t good, what you should be doing and how people in my industry did the job, I began to experiment less, and I began to move to the middle of the road. I strived more and more for my work to achieve technical perfection.

I had started to think about going full time with photography and so I looked to improve the quality of my work. Of course this is a good thing in many ways – clients demand quality, but in this quest for so-called perfection… which, by the way, was never going to happen after a year or two doing anything… in this quest for perfection I’d abandoned my experimental nature because I was trying to do it how other people were telling me it should be done.

I can feel you nodding along to this because I think we’ve all been there early in our careers, maybe you’re there right now.

And this is often the way with the perfection we strive for in creativity. It’s a completely false thing. It’s usually that we’re led to believe there’s a way things have to be done and you need to get as close as you can to that in order to be perfect at your craft.

What a load of crap that is!

What I’d actually done was to leave the fun, off road trails that is the art of experimental photography where you never quite know what’s round the next corner and that’s frighteningly exciting and I’d ended up in the neat concrete wasteland that is the business of photography.

You’ve heard me talk before about the clash between business and art, and you’ll hear me talk about it many times in the future I’m sure.

And by the way I’m never saying that the two can’t co-exist peacefully in those off-road trails, of course they can – I spend most of my time off-road but I’m often distracted back into business land and have to tell myself to do what I need to do here, and get back off road.

This analogy has taken on a life of its own, I’m sorry. I’m abandoning the off-road analogy!

What am I even talking about. Oh yeah, perfection. So yeah there I was two years in and I’m now obsessed with my photography being perfect. My definition of perfect was determined by my new idols in the industry.

As I’d been a photographer for a few years now, I’d started to meet other photographers and of course, like any creatives, easy small talk is to chat about whose work you like and I’d started to find out about other photographers who were making waves in the industry and so I naturally became obsessed with their work and trying to copy it because they were what I saw as perfection.

So of course I would try and imitate their work, and I’d make photos that weren’t so good. This was experimentation in a sense, a lot like what I had been doing in the early days, but now the end goal was different… it wasn’t to ‘see what happens’ any more, it was to ‘try and make work like that girl or that guy’. Of course this led to perpetual disappointment that I just wasn’t living up to their work.

See, perfection is something you define yourself. It’s not a thing that actually exists. In football (or soccer if you’re listening stateside) there’s such a thing as a perfect hat-trick where you score a goal with your right foot, a goal with your left foot, and a goal with your head. Nobody who has ever scored a perfect hat-trick was trying to score a perfect hat trick. The perfection is a bonus, and if they’d tried to score a perfect hat-trick they’d probably have scored no goals at all! Profound hey? I just thought of that now!

Anyway, after trying to imitate my heroes and just having a horrible time and hating my work and really feeling down about it all I said next time I’m shooting I’m going to let all that go and just do what I want. And you know what, that was my favourite shoot in a long time and some of my favourite ever photos up to that point and a total revelation for me artistically.

I learned two things:

1. Perfection doesn’t exist
2. Imitation will hold you back from your best work

After that I stopped striving for perfection and started consciously experimenting again in my work. I still appreciated and looked up to the works of other artists in my industry and I took inspiration from what they were making, and I still do, but I stopped thinking that recreating it was what was going to make me successful.

And this doesn’t just apply to making pictures or making whatever it is you make. It can apply to everything we do. In the past I’ve taken ages to launch new websites, because it never felt perfect. Even making this podcast was delayed over a month because I was afraid of being judged because it wasn’t perfect. So many times I’ve recorded videos, or even small things like instagram stories and deleted them because I messed up or there was some barely visible flaw. All of this means you’re holding yourself back from progressing.

Perfectionism can be a prison, and accepting and embracing imperfection in your work is freedom and is insanely liberating.

If you’re used to striving tirelessly for perfection it will take time and it takes a conscious effort to realise that imperfection is freedom, and through accepting this perceived imperfection you’ll see more progression in your work because you’ll be putting more out there and will actually begin to develop your own style much quicker.

I’ve got a good friend and whenever she records an instagram story, even if something goes wrong or she messes up her words, she will post it anyway. It’s her own personal rule to herself and it stops her judging herself and ultimately not posting stuff. It’s one small example of how imperfection is freeing and way more conducive to making progress and getting yourself or your work out there.

So if you remember one thing this week, remember this:

imitation won’t make you happy, and imperfection is freedom!

I’ll finish with my recommendations of what I think you should listen to, read and watch over the next week…

Listen: It’s an album called The Click by the band AJR. Truly one of my favourite bands. I actually discovered this band through my 11 year old son playing me one of their songs on his phone one evening, Sober Up, which is on this album. Hope you like it!

Read: You may or may not have heard of the Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His biography – I am Zlatan – is something I read once every couple of years. I just love his mindset and how single minded he is. It’s well worth a read, and you don’t have to be into football or know who he is to read it either.

Watch: One of my favourite ever comedy series is The Last Man on Earth. The first few seasons are on Amazon prime and if you can get past the irony that even though it was made a good few years ago, it’s set in 2021, the year after a virus wipes out the entire population of the planet, it’s a really incredibly funny and clever show with a great cast.

Ok positive creatives, that’s all I’ve got for this week! Go forth and strive for imperfection and I’ll see you next time on The Positive Creatives!

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