The Perils Of Perfectionism

It was nice to see that I wasn’t alone.

Salvation came from an unlikely source: a musicians’ web forum.

The thread began with one person describing how he was having trouble completing a new piece of music because he was “obsessing over the tiny details”. A torrent of responses soon followed, and opinions varied widely. Some argued that when you’re stuck, it’s best to let go and move on; others said that details were the most important part so they must be obsessed over.

One poor soul even confessed an inability to complete anything because he gets too hung up on all the fine points.

For anyone who’s ever embarked on any kind of creative endeavor, this probably sounds pretty familiar. It points to a fundamental problem that all artists have to grapple with at some point:

How do you know when you’re done?

The fine-tuning process is potentially endless — there’s always something you can tweak — at what point do you allow yourself to stop?

If you’re working with a deadline, this question gets answered for you. Deadlines can be a real pain in the ass, but in this one respect they’re a godsend because they give you an out. When the deadline hits, come hell or high water you must step back, call it day, and let the piece walk away on its own two feet. And if you’re unhappy with the way the piece turned out, you have the perfect excuse — you can just blame the “unreasonable” deadline you were forced to work with. (And they’re always unreasonable, aren’t they?)

Without a deadline, it’s up to you to answer the question for yourself. This is when Perfectionism sneaks in the back door and starts rearranging the furniture.

Perfectionism is both beauty and beast. The beauty is that it can help drive you to make your work the very best it can be. The beast is that you can get lost in a sea of details, and either continue working on the same piece for the rest of your life, or give up in frustration and move on to something else, which, if you do this often enough, will leave you with a huge pile of work that’s all about 90% complete. Neither is a pretty story.

I think we’d also have to admit that our flirtations with Perfectionism give us a little bit of an ego boost as well. When Perfectionism is in the room, we get to play the role of the obsessed artiste, steadfastly refusing to release our work to the world until it is Absolutely And Completely Perfect. Now, please: leave me to suffer with my work.

It’s a good story, but I don’t think it leads to a healthy creative process. In truth, I think it’s just our old friend Fear, in yet another one of his disguises. And it’s a good one too: as long as we can find things wrong with our work, we have an excuse not to finish anything (crafty old bastard).

So the question remains: how do you know when you’re done?

I don’t think there’s a single answer that will apply to everyone, but I think the solution lies in finding a healthy relationship with Perfectionism. Definitely invite it in, but don’t let it overstay its welcome. To help find the right balance, you might ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Is this the right time for Perfectionism? As a general rule, Perfectionism becomes more useful as you get into the later stages of a new work; in the early stages, it usually just gets in the way. If you’re starting to explore some new material and you find yourself sweating the details, you might do well to send Perfectionism home and tell it to come back later.
     
  2. Is the piece still moving forward, or has the law of diminishing returns kicked in? Are you fixing details in one place, only to find flaws elsewhere, and fixing those causes you to create new problems in the area you fixed earlier? Some of this can be productive, but it can quickly degenerate into a Perfectionism feedback loop. If you feel like you’re stuck in a repeating pattern, it might be time to wrap it up and move on, or, at the very least, walk away from the piece for a while and come at it with a fresh perspective.
     
  3. Is it time for a second opinion? It’s often useful to have a fellow artist that you trust take a look at what you’re doing and see what he or she thinks. Ideally you want someone who won’t candy-coat their reactions to spare your ego, nor offer mindless criticism to help inflate their own. I’ve sometimes found that I don’t actually need the person to say anything. Just having someone else in the room helps open up my perspective on what I’m doing.

It’s a delicate dance: how much is too much?

Based on my own experience, I would argue that it’s better to err on the side of too little obsessing rather than too much. I’m sure many would disagree with that, but I’ve found that there is a lot of value in bringing work to completion and releasing it to the world, even if it’s not “perfect”.

When you declare a piece finished, you start to create a little distance. As time goes on, and as your work goes on, those details that you had been obsessing over start to become a little fuzzier, and don’t seem to draw quite as much attention as they used to. This is not to say that you no longer see flaws in your work (just about everyone can find something wrong with something they’ve done) but the incessant buzzing of those flaws fades into overall music of the work as a whole, and they’re no longer the distraction that they once were.

When you look back on the piece, months or years later, you get a nice feeling of “I did that,” and you’ve picked up a little more wisdom and a little more confidence that will serve you for as long as you continue making new work.

I think that’s a pretty good payoff for simply letting a few details go.

(Note: this post has gone through numerous drafts and rewrites, and I still feel like it’s not quite right. Oh well…)

UPDATE: David H. Thomas posted a note to Twitter that pretty much says in one sentence everything I was trying to say in this long post: “Let yourself be a perfectionist and simultaneously completely forgiving.” Indeed.

UPDATE 2: There have been some great responses to this post from David H. Thomas and Karl Henning. The discussion continues somewhat randomly in comment fields of all of our blogs – lots of fun! 😀

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7 comments

  1. Good post Darin. Thoughtful and insightful. Cute comment at the end about it not being “quite right”. Is it ever perfect? Perfection is an ideal, not attainable. We can only get close. But that’s the journey, and the reward.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, David – it’s much appreciated. And I quite agree that perfection is just something we strive for, knowing full well that we’ll never attain it. It sounds odd, but I believe it’s true.

  2. “. . . and opinions varied widely. Some argued that when you’re stuck, it’s best to let go and move on; others said that details were the most important part so they must be obsessed over.”

    But these two points can be harmonized (to some degree). Even if you feel strongly that measure 53 needs *something*, NOW may not be the time that you discover that something. Make note that you want to go back to that spot, AND go on. You can still make your way to the final double-bar. The thing is, not to get in to the habit of feeling that the inscription of that double-bar “means” that you’re done. (I.e., it *can* mean that, OR it may be that you need to go back and “fix” measure 53 . . . and because your musical attention has been fixed on other matters, you may be fresher for the task of “repairing” measure 53. The other music which you have composed for the rest of the piece, may “unlock” for you, th epuzzle of what you need to do with measure 53.

    Cheers,
    ~Karl

  3. dtclarinet · · Reply

    Karl, what a marvelous and subtle solution. It is apparent that perfectionism is a complicated little knot which must not be ignored.

    I am beginning to realize I am a “closet” perfectionist. And that I should be more honest about the details which bother me, but which I gloss over in the name of efficiency.

    I usually have a deadline, being and orchestral musician with weekly concerts. But now that I am attempting to “perfect” a book of etudes to a recording level for my own satisfaction, I am having to face the issues discussed here.

  4. Karl, you make a great point about not letting yourself get completely blocked when you hit a trouble spot. And I agree that it’s often best to leave it and come back with a fresh approach.

    I think my larger question is what happens when you’ve gone back to measure 53 on several occasions and it still doesn’t feel quite right? When do you allow yourself to move on not just to another spot in the piece, but to something new altogether?

    David touched on this in his most recent comment: he’s working on a book of etudes and has no deadline. How will he determine that the work he’s done is “good enough”, make the recording, then move on to something new?

    I have no real answers, but the questions fascinate me.

  5. Darin- Karl found you through a post on my blog where I linked to yours. I plan to continue to explore this subject myself. I have a friend who personally, in her house, was the sloppiest of anyone, and in her playing, a perfectionist, obsessive. Now she is finding she wants to be perfectly clean in her house as well, and it’s helping her become a happier person. I think I may also be a closet perfectionist. Facing up to that helps to find balance, and respond to the wonderful urge to play something really perfectly.

  6. […] perfectionism at bay for awhile. As I wrote in a previous post, there’s a time and place for perfectionism. The Song-A-Day project definitely ain’t […]

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