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Playful Escapes When Perfectionism Jams Up Your Creativity

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Ach! Writing an article, designing a course, describing what you do on your website, or trying to do another creative task can leave you tearing your hair out!

Ach! Writing an article, designing a course, describing what you do on your website, or trying to do another creative task can leave you tearing your hair out!

You want to do it, but end up uncreative, procrastinating and stuck. Perfectionism piles on pressure and jams us up. Remembering more playful attitudes can get you back on track.

  • Perfectionism holds you back by
  • Fearing failure
  • Which blocks your creativity
  • And makes you too anxious to engage creatively with what you’re trying to do
  • And then keeps interrupting you with criticism!
  • A more playful attitude can help you
  • Orient to the bigger path of growth
  • so you can loosen up, try more things and learn as you go,
  • relax into more exploratory time with what you’re trying to create
  • and do it with fewer interruptions from your self-critical voice.

Increase Success by Allowing Failure

Perfectionism over-emphasises each step and forgets the journey. One escape from this is to come back to the bigger picture.

A few days ago, the Peregrine Lander spacecraft taking NASA instruments to the moon developed a leak and could not complete its mission. It failed. I loved NASA’s perspective on it.

NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy said “What we have learned from our commercial partners is if we have a high enough [launch frequency], we can relax some of the requirements that make it so costly and have a higher risk appetite. And if they fail, the next one is going to learn and succeed.”

By allowing some launches to fail, each launch becomes much cheaper and easier. So they can launch more often. Overall, this leads to more success than demanding each one be “perfect”.

No one single attempt has to succeed to be a good choice. If you’re playing poker and you know there’s an 80% chance your hand will win, you should bet on that hand. You won’t necessarily win that time. There’s a 20% chance you’ll lose.  But if you keep doing that you will win overall, particularly if you’re learning as you go.

I went to some improv classes and jams last week. I did some things I was pleased with, and some I wasn’t. What happened each individual time isn’t the point. By engaging repeatedly, we learn and in general we get better.

Perfectionism frets about the outcome of an individual step. Reorienting to the bigger picture is a reminder that you can fail at one thing and still be making progress overall.

Find Quality Through Quantity

An artist friend of mine says, “You know how you paint a great picture? Draw a hundred pictures and one or two of them will be great.”

Perfectionism obsesses about trying to do very few things perfectly. But the best quality often comes through creating lots.

In their book Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland relate how a ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups. He told half his class that they would be graded solely on how much work they produced. He would bring in his bathroom scales, and literally weigh their work. To get the highest grades, they simply had to produce more. 25kg of work would get an “A”, 20kg a “B”, and so on. He told the other half that they would be graded on the quality of their single best piece.

When grading time came, the “quantity” group had naturally made more pots. But without meaning to, they – not the “quality” group – had also made the best pots. The “quality” group had been uptight about trying to make one perfect pot. They hadn’t had as much practice. They hadn’t opened up to happy accidents. Overthinking had denied them space to play and discover new possibilities.

Often the quickest way to make something great is to make more.

Commit to the Process, Let go of the Outcome

“Becoming enlightened is an accident. But some activities make you more accident-prone.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers) talks about how he and fellow Python Graham Chapman would sometimes try to write for hours and come up with nothing. Generally, though, they found that if they stayed with it, they could write 15-18 minutes of good material a week. Inspiration doesn’t come at a steady rate. You stay with the process and occasionally something wonderful happens. Not being inspired is part of the process.

“All we had to do was sit there, whether it flowed or it didn’t, and by Friday evening we would have enough. We came to understand that the blockages weren’t an interruption in the process, they were part of it. For example, when you eat, the bit where the fork returns empty to the plate isn’t a failure. It’s just part of the eating process.”

Cleese writes later “Feeling creative isn’t exactly an emotion. It’s a frame of mind.” It is mostly not about having inspiration and then starting. The skill here is to engage in a patient, relaxed manner and trust that over time inspiration will occasionally strike.

In a similar way, business coach George Kao talks about being “strict about showing up, lenient about the results”

If your process isn’t working, change the process until you have something that works for you.

Know Which Side You’re Working On

Creating and evaluating are complementary aspects of the creative process. Both are good. But they’re different. One is opening out; one is narrowing down. You can’t do both at the same time. So separate them.

In your creative time, your job is to explore, play and be open. Allow ideas to take you to new places. Draw things. Make things. Try speaking for ten minutes on your subject and see what comes up. Remove all pressure. You aren’t evaluating anything at this point so it’s impossible to do anything “wrong.”  Your job is to relax and engage playfully with what you’re working on.

When it’s time to evaluate, you can look at what you’ve done, choose what you like and remove what you don’t. See what you learned or discovered. But this should be a separate activity. Put some time between the two different modes of operating. For example, you could create in the morning, have lunch, go for a walk, do some admin and then have a look at what you did in the afternoon.

Find ways to demarcate these different ways of engaging. You could create and evaluate in different locations or wear different clothes. You could set yourself up with different physicalities. For example, you could dance to The Muppets’ theme tune before creating. Then listen to some minimalist music by Arvo Part before evaluating.

Think like a gold prospector. You can’t just stand there with your sieve. First, you dig something up. Then you sift through it and look for gold. Dig then sift. Not both at the same time. Then use what you’ve found to decide where to dig next.

Perfectionism Escape Paths

If you get stuck when you’re trying to create, try some or all of these.

Orient to growth

Don’t judge a step by how it turned out. Judge it by whether doing that kind of thing is likely to help you grow overall.

Aim for quantity

Draw 20 things. Write 20 titles for workshops. Compose ten songs. Take fifty photos. Come up with ten ideas for what you and the family could do this weekend. Tip – after your first few ideas, you’ll probably hit a point where you think “I don’t have any more ideas.” Great! That means you’ve run out of your normal ideas. The next ideas will be your most creative.

Commit to the process and let go of the outcome

Instead of demanding that inspiration strike according to your timetable, define success in terms of time you spend with your creative process. For example, “spend an hour exploring how I describe what I do” or “spend thirty minutes drawing”. Focus on how you’re showing up and begin to learn what helps you become more “accident-prone” to inspiration.

Separate creating and evaluating

For most of us, the greatest challenge is to allow space for the playful creative part of the process. Play needs defined boundaries. So set some. For example, “10-11am today is to explore and play with ideas around ___.” Your job for this hour is simply to gently stay with the project. Later, say, 2-3pm is time for evaluating and refining what you came up with and building from there.

Happy creating! Let me know what works or doesn’t work for you either from these suggestions or techniques you’ve discovered yourself.

If you think you’d benefit from continuing to unblock yourself, you might like Healthy Striving Club where we’ll use gentle body-mind explorations to soften perfectionism and integrate that into your current circumstances. Like a yoga class for your inner experience.


  • BBC report on Peregrine 1 lander failure
  • Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke
  • Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland quoted in How creativity is helped by failure, Matthew Syed
  • Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide, John Cleese
  • Be Strict about Showing Up. Be Lenient about the Results, George Kao

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