why perfectionism is so totally overrated



I was at a week-long writer’s retreat at a villa in St Tropez. We played two truths and a lie. The point was to speak and go deep.

Some of us might or might not have said things like:

My friend knows that I slept with her husband.
I’ve been in prison twice.
I’ve been lonely my whole life.
I feel secretly responsible for the death of my child.
My English teacher seduced me when I was sixteen.

The point was to create an atmosphere of intimacy and trust that would allow us to pack as much progress as we could in the time that we had together.

If we couldn’t share work that was still in the vulnerable early stages, or tell each other the truth (in a constructive manner), or go deep in the timed writing exercises, we would waste time and money.

We were in a working relationship with each other. And the foundation of any relationship, as Dr Phil would probably tell you, is trust.

We live in a culture that trumpets this idea of fierce individualism, and yet in so many ways we depend on each other to move up and move forward. I saw this at the villa. Improving as a writer is a creative and collaborative process: it depends on experimentation, risk, trial and error, constructive feedback, a growing sense of what works and what doesn’t and why (or why not).

But first, you have to put yourself out there in your imperfect glory

your deep and fucked-up beauty

both in what you reveal and how you reveal it.

This makes me think of the advice Seth Rose gave an audience of aspiring entrepreneurs several years ago. Just make a version of the technology and get it out there, he said. Don’t waste time trying to make it perfect. You need to see how the user responds to it. Chances are they’ll use it in ways you never predicted, while ignoring the functions you considered important.

Then you can evolve the product according to what the user needs and wants, instead of what you think the user needs and wants.

In what strikes me as a similar way, your blog, your ‘voice’, your personal brand, evolves through an ongoing interaction with the people formerly known as your audience. You put yourself out there, you collect feedback, you develop a sense for what works and where your interests and your audience’s interests align (a.k.a. the ‘sweetspot’). You evolve through trial and error, variation and selection, in response to a rapidly changing world.

You try out different things, discard the failures and repeat the successes – and then repeat – and then repeat.

But you have to be willing to fail. To make mistakes. Often in public.

(The trick is to make sure that they’re survivable mistakes and failures – what Peter Sims refers to in his book as “little bets”.)

If you struggle with perfectionism, this can be a problem.

We need to trust our own ability to tolerate risk, uncertainty and repeated failures. We need to trust that the world will not annihilate us for having the audacity to reveal ourselves as a continuing work-in-progress.

Creativity calls for trust. This blog post makes the connection between creativity, trust and play (an important element of being creative).

Play gets people comfortable and relaxed with one another. When we play we lose our tendency toward conservative thinking. We take more chances. We muster up the courage to share our most outrageous thinking. Fear dissipates; better ideas materialize.

When people are trusting, they are more likely to speak their minds and float their ideas, no matter how crazy or half-baked they fear those ideas to be.

I’ll repeat that: people are more likely to speak their minds.

The fear of failure, of looking and being imperfect, traps us inside ourselves, in a silent place where nothing grows. It cuts us off from the energy of the world.

When you share your work, float your ideas, speak your mind, you are in direct engagement with the world. The creative act is an expansive act. In contrast, perfectionism is about isolation, shame, stagnation. You hide behind an image, an idea, a dream of perfection that serves neither the world nor yourself.

To be creative, we have to trust in the process.

We have to trust in ourselves.

Which means we have to accept ourselves. If you’re constantly judging and criticizing and dismissing your ideas, your voice will never find the space it needs to speak.

Subscribe to my list in that ink-blot-butterfly box overhead.

Jun 6, 2011

12 comments · Add Yours

Interesting. My creatively just kicked into a higher gear, but I blame “bad haiku”. Still, I feel a little funny talking about it in a blog because blogs never die once they’re posted.


Interesting. Very. And something i totally agree with!
Creativity is play, isn’t it, in a way?!


I love your courage and encouragement. The idea of making mistakes and failing sounds good, but the reality is often painful regardless of the rewards. Maybe failing gets easier when you also repeat and repeat and repeat successes as you suggest. Thanks for making us think.


The chains of self-doubt and self-criticism are difficult chains to break, especially when they are interlinked into the core. Using creativity could help to free one from those chains, but taking those steps is free climbing Mount Rushmore for an acrophobic.

Love the post, as always. Thank you for making us push ourselves forward and think outside our boxes.


Something must be in the air lately because I am drawn to statements like you shared in this post. “We have to trust in ourselves” and “Trust the Process”. I feel I am less about perfectionism when I don’t worry what others think. I once had a friend say, “What other people think about you is none of your business”. I find the more vulnerable I am.. it opens the door for others. You got me thinking again. Thanks for the post.


I have now written 3 novels as serials on my blog. When we did the edits for the 1st one, there were thousands of errors. They are still there on the blog for all to see. I couldn’t care less.

There are those who will argue that a publisher or literary agent might see them and then think poorly of my writing. Again, I don’t care. In 16 months I have created three novels that I am proud of, and will all be published. They publisher is a tiny one who mostly does woodworking books.

I am overwhelmingly content with my writing process and my own imperfections in spelling and grammar. I am also confident in my ability to improve. I keep a log of the mistakes my beta readers found (225), and this was after my mother, my editor, and I had cleaned it up. As long as I continue to improve, I am quite comfortable with people knowing how much I suck.

That being said, I am also one who aggressively works to master anything I take up. It is the getting from point A (super suckiness) to point B (Crushing my friends in table tennis, fencing, badminton, golf, ect) which is the fun part.

If there is someone in your life who is constantly berating you for not being good enough, then do the sensible thing, and pray they die a horrible death in a badger mauling. There are plenty of nice people who will also be supportive, let the hungry badgers have the rest.

Great post

Brian Meeks


Ah! St. Tropez a perfect playground for the muse! Great post.


Thanks for this reinforcement on the project I’m doing. Starting my videos for LaFemme LeBaron was all about just starting! Thanks


It occurred to me, as I read your thoughts, that one could apply this advice about trust, risk taking and exposing vulnerability to making a romantic relationship work, a marriage, or marriage-type commitment. As an example, I substituted and added a few of my words to your paragraph.

“When you share your work, float your ideas, speak your mind, you are in direct engagement with YOUR PARTNER. The creative act, AS IN BEING YOURSELF, is an expansive act. In contrast, perfectionism, LIKE WANTING THE PERFECT MATE, LEADS TO isolation, shame, stagnation. You hide behind an image, an idea, a dream of perfection that serves neither YOUR SPOUSE nor yourself.”

To make a loving relationship work, we have to trust in the process. We have to trust in ourselves.



Thanks, Justine. I just subscribed and shared this link on FB. Great stuff!


In college, I thought perfectionism was a good thing. I learned the hard way that this isn’t true: overstressed, anorexic, depressed and ultra-isolated in my striving to create the “perfect” papers and be the “perfect” person. I also never created any fiction like I wanted to–too busy writing perfect papers. Hm, wonder if there was a connection.


Perfectionism is a prison with an unlocked door. We get to decide when to leave.

(now’s good)

Why do people choose to stay?

Maybe your thoughts will be someone’s light bulb. Thanks for posting.


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