So many talented people become frozen by the fear of their creations not being good enough. I hope this essay can help you overcome your self-doubt and discover the artist your heart knows that you are.
The world needs your art, now more than ever.
“To practice any art, no matter how well or how badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. So do it.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
Something I was reminded of this week is how people who endeavour to succeed in artistic fields often struggle because they feel the things they create aren’t good enough to share, that someone else has done something better, drawn something with more flair, written something more poetically or created something else that, in some way, isn’t perfect. They feel that because what they have conjured up is imperfect, that it has no value and that it should either be abandoned or, worse, it should be laboured over obsessively until it is perfect. It’s a feeling I know very well from experience. For around five years, I barely shared any of my writing, and it got to the point where I barely wrote anything at all. What’s the point in writing something and publishing it when someone else has already said what I want to say, but they’ve said it better than I ever could, they’ve got more knowledge on it than I ever have, and every time I look at it all I see is what is wrong with it? I used to torture myself with these thoughts, lying in bed at night unable to sleep as I tried to craft the perfect syntax, the most poetic phrases and something completely world-changing in my head, only to forget anything I thought of by morning or, on the rare occasions I took notes, to look back and dismiss them all the next day. I can’t be the best, I’d say, so there’s no point even giving it a go.
Perfectionism is the greatest curse for any creative, because it condemns them to only see the flaws in whatever wonderful thing they create. The rest of the world may love it, but the perfectionist, they never can, because they see only how it could be improved, they obsess over the tiny imperfection that nobody else notices or cares about, they dismiss remarkable creations because they just aren’t perfect to them. I see it in my musical friend, one of the most talented people you’ll ever meet, who has the savant ability to play any song on the guitar within seconds of hearing it, who has written some of the greatest songs you’ll never hear because he, despite spending thousands of hours at the computer playing and recording his songs, simply cannot finish an album because all he sees is what is wrong with his masterpieces. I see it in the countless people who can draw and make the most wonderful pieces of art, yet never stick to projects and, if they manage to complete something, they share it almost apologetically, pointing out the flaws they see rather than letting people make their own minds up. I see it in my writer friend who, despite once having a career in writing and changing tens of thousands of people’s lives with his words, hasn’t published anything new in years because he feels that he isn’t as good as he used to be, that his words won’t have the impact they used to have. I see it in these wonderfully-talented people I know, just from my own small corner of the world, and I know that these feelings are echoed by millions of people over the globe. The biggest bullshit we tell ourselves is that because it’s not the best thing ever, it cannot possibly have any worth. It’s this bullshit that the voice in our head tells us which sucks all the joy out of creating, which prevents the world from having a chance to connect with this art and which, ultimately, ends up with us giving up completely and hating ourselves for not being perfect.
Breaking this thought process is so difficult to do, not least because so many creative types have brains that work a little differently to the masses and which are a bit more vulnerable to these negative obsessive thought processes. How I managed it, and found the strength to start writing and publishing things again after so long frozen in fear, was changing my thought processes around creating things. I’d love to make a career out of writing, as difficult and unlikely as that may be. I won’t achieve that through striving for perfection with everything I write, because perfection is unattainable, and telling myself I couldn’t publish things because they weren’t perfect is a crutch I used to deny the fact I was scared – scared of being judged, scared of nobody caring, scared of being laughed at, or of being wrong with the things I created. The way I look at things now is that it’s far better to have a broad portfolio, filled with depth, that consists of seven or eight out-of-tens, with the occasional magic-in-a-bottle creation, rather than striving to make everything I publish a perfect ten. I tell myself that the next thing I write is the one that’s going to be perfection, and the only way to get there is to finish the creation I’m working on now, to publish it, learn from it and move on. Then, when I’m working on the second piece, I tell myself again that it’s the next thing I work on that will be perfect, and that this one just needs to be finished, however imperfectly it turns out. Before you know it, being creative and finishing things has become a routine, the fear of failure and imperfection has dissipated, and you’re so much closer to your goal of a career in your chosen artistic pursuit.
It might sound like a daft technique, but it works. By lessening the importance of the current essay in my mind, by tricking myself into thinking that the current piece of creativity is a roadblock I just need to get through so I can get to the ‘real’ piece, and then by repeating that over and over, I now have so much more written, so much more published on my website – twenty-one essays of two-to-three thousand words in fifty days, spread over three separate columns – while also having rewritten twelve thousand words for my book and written five thousand new words, in addition to completing two university assignments of two thousand words, working 48 to 72 hours a week and raising a family. It is a period of creativity and drive that is unprecedented in my life, and more importantly, it feels sustainable. I look forward to finishing the two university assignments left this module and having six months to write for fun before my next one is due. I look forward to the football season finishing, being able to put FPL Nightmare on the shelf for a few months and having only real-world blogs and my book to write. I’m excited for the prospect, and for finding out what I can achieve, and it’s because I’ve tricked myself into believing the current project is a chore that needs completing so I can get to the life-changing thing that’s next in line, and repeating that process every time. It sounds daft, but it works.
I back this up by remembering that every band I love only has two or three songs that speak to me on another level. Most of their catalogue is average to good, almost-entirely forgettable in the grand scheme of things, but without those seven-out-of-tens, I'd never have experienced the rare songs that mean the most. Without Foo Fighters’ average first album and a second album with several fillers, there’s no Everlong. Without the King Blues experimenting with different styles and producing songs that mean nothing to me, there’s no What If Punk Never Happened. Far too much of Nine Inch Nails’ catalogue is tedious, self-indulgent and forgettable, but without it, the world never gets Hurt. You have to accept the average in order to enable the exceptional, that’s just the way it works, and it’s the only way anybody will care.
Your first few finished creations will never be your best – if they are, it just shows you aren’t able to learn, to grow, to get better - but if you can get them finished, you'll be far more prepared to achieve that incredible piece of art that you're striving for. If you can convince yourself that your next piece is your most important one, you’ll create magic in the meantime. If you can keep on finishing imperfect things, you’ll give yourself the greatest chance of glory and, even if it never happens, you’ll feel much better looking back in thirty years and seeing all the things you finished. You’ll look back on them with older, wiser eyes, and you’ll realise your perfection was not in something you created, but in the effort and perseverance you applied in your strive for the sublime. That’s why I publish my essays even when I know they may never mean anything, because when I’m old and grey, I’d rather look back and see a thousand essays and several books I’ve written that were flawed and imperfect but meant something to people, than look back at an empty portfolio filled with nothing but forgotten dreams, and be left wishing I'd just written and published things and seen what happened.
It’s better to succeed imperfectly than fail perfectly. Pick up the thing you’ve been putting off, do whatever it takes to get it finished, and then move on to something new. After all, it’s that something new that you’re going to get perfect, if only you can finish the thing you’re working on now.
“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labour, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”