Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How to Recover from Perfectionism

Beauty in art can be found in the recovery from mistakes

Sometimes people ask me how I have time to create so much and do so much. I do, in fact, sleep, and I do rest - a lot. The real reason I create so much? I let go of perfectionism. Done is better than perfect. My perfectionism used to stop me from creating – or finishing – anything that wasn’t exactly perfect. Untold wasted hours.

But now I’m learning ways to make peace with the mistakes and the wrong bits while they’re here. I’m trying to listen to them.

Today, I am making a pot. I am a complete beginner potter. I have yet to make a perfect pot. It’s a good place to practice my recovering perfectionism.

But again my finger slips.

And a small dent forms, marring the edge.

This time, instead of fighting the dent or throwing out the bowl, I follow the truth of the dent.

I look for a way of incorporating this new information, this accident, into the pot I am making.How to smooth the edges of it, in harmony with the rest of the pot. How to incorporate this dent.

And the pot learns a new direction, a new way of being a pot that was not included in my concept of “pot”, before.

And I learn a new way of making a pot that I did not previously have in my understanding of pottery-throwing.

My finished pot looks like an artist made it - an artist working in a new material, perhaps, but someone who can express herself in pottery.

And what did I express? I expressed the incorporation of a mistake into my art. I did not create a “perfect” pot. I created an artful pot.

Through accepting my beginner’s mistake.

(Left: Ian, the martial artist.)

My husband and creative partner, Ian, is widely read on a multitude of subjects, including the origins of many words. He tells me that the word “sin” in the Bible is a mistranslation of a word that comes from archery that in fact should have been translated as “mistake”.

So it’s not that we have original “sin.” It’s that we are born imperfect. In other words, we are not complete, finished, perfect human beings.

And now I am finding the artistic gold in that place where the imperfection lies.

Art without this recovery from error is sterile. Pure pattern, without accident, is empty. Pure pattern is Bach the way a computer would play it, not the way Glenn Gould would play. Gould’s humming and heavy breathing, and the creaking of the seat he’s sitting on, are part of what make his performance of Bach so alive.

(Right: Glenn Gould, reknowned

Canadian interpreter of Bach)

Breathing with my mistakes

Today I am drumming. My brain knows a lot about music, but my hands are learning conga from the beginning just like anyone. My practiced, professional musician’s ear has been keenly aware and keenly critical of my hesitations and mistakes.

But lately I have been responding differently to a missed slap on the conga.

I’ll be in the livingroom, with light crossing the parquet floor towards me. I’ll be practicing a particular simple conga pattern, when – yak! – I miss a beat.

But this time I tune into the echo of the empty sound, the space following the missed or incorrectly played beat.

Inside me, a steady pulse is still thumping in the silence, “1-2-3-4”, keeping the beat.

I know that when it comes around to “1” again, my conga pattern can start over.

I start my conga pattern over.

And, whoosh! I am back into the swing of the pattern I am practicing. For the first time, I have left my total-beginner player status. I can leave the beat for a moment, go somewhere not predicted, and come back again.

I am becoming a real conga player. Out of my miss/taken miss/step I have regrown new art.

It’s like the beauty of an old tree, grown gnarled around a once broken-off limb.

Or the way the firs on my grandmother’s Georgian Bay island all grew in a sharp slant because of the force of the wind.

The music is more beautiful when I accept and incorporate my errors.

More and more I let myself breathe with the mistakes when they occur. Because I do, I find my balance much more quickly, and the art flows out of me much more smoothly.

I stopped hating and regretting my errors. I started accepting and loving them for where they are bringing me.

And then I watched my creative spirit grow.


  1. Another wonderful article!

    I especially like the part about creating an artful rather than beautiful pot.

    "Done is better than perfect." This has become somewhat of a mantra for me in my work... thank you!

    Another label for this article: The Perfection of Imperfection.

    This is something I practice a lot with drawing mandalas... it's a perfect medium for drawing out the beauty of so-called mistakes. : D

    Thanks for this!

    Glad to hear there will be regular weekly posts. I like the email updates, so I remember to come read them.

  2. Fantastic! Thanks for the wisdom, Vanessa.

  3. Hi Vanessa:
    Thank you from Uncle Dick for the article on perfectionism.
    It has always been an problem with me, if it can be called that.
    I have always been driven trying to achieve that perfectionism in each project I create. Many times believing that I had succeeded and upon doing a self critique of the work only to find that spot where I could have improved ( It can drive one to distraction ).
    I like the line "Done is better than perfect."
    In the ad game we always said a good job was a sold job.
    It's time to take your writing to heart and put the fun back into whatever you are doing and let go of knocking oneself out for that perfect piece whatever it may be.
    However a word of caution in some professions such as a Brain Surgeon perfectionism is definitely a requirement
    would you not agree.
    Congratulations Vanessa on your writings. Cheers Uncle Dick

  4. Yes, Dick you are right! And in this post I didn't say that sometimes I do apply my perfectionism - selectively! It's the across-the-board-everything-has-to-be-perfect application that's the killer. But when I say, okay, this one needs to be perfect (also known as not bugging me!), I do apply my perfectionism. And yes, surgery is a perfect place for perfectionists!