Why Being You Is Perfect For Creativity
Striving to achieve a sense of perfection has been a misguided belief in my life, often leading me down the wrong path. It has made me, at times, place value on the wrong things. It has made me not listen to my true self for fear that I would somehow fail in another’s eyes. I was curious as to how the idea of perfection has become so pervasive in our society, how it begins, how it hurts us and perhaps, even, if it carries a certain benefit.
The idea of “being perfect” is something that plagues many of us in our society, causing a lot of stress and feelings of inadequacy. Where does this idea that we need to be perfect come from? How can we come to terms with (and find the beauty in) imperfection?
Breaking free from perfectionism isn’t easy, largely because of how we’re raised and taught. We’re rewarded and loved by parents, teachers, and mentors for getting good grades, accomplishing athletic achievements, or getting into a great school or job. The problem with that approach to praise and reward is that it builds up our resistance to doing anything that’s less than perfect. And since being imperfect, and being willing to make mistakes in order to discover new paths, opportunities, and approaches is essential to any creative process. Unless we’re a genius or prodigy like Mozart, we must unlearn a lot of old habits.
In my experience, many, many people, especially creative people have very judgmental parents.
My dad was my harshest critic, though it was all coming from a place of incredible character and unconditional love. His dad did the same, and it just cascaded down. On the flip-side, mothers (and fathers, too) can unleash creativity with their unconditional love and unendingly optimistic encouragement and support, as my mother did (we were very close). Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, had a similar experience with his parents. Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar had the same, as well as his business partner John Lasseter, cofounder and chief creative officer of Pixar, whose mother emphatically encouraged him to follow his childhood interest in cartoons.
Since I work with and lead a lot of artists, the power relationships are very interesting.
If a father and/or mother was overly critical, the key thing that needs to happen is for the person to let go of the feeling that they have to be an idea, rather than just being you as I encourage people to be.
It’s one of the hardest things to actually do—but what drives it all comes down to support structures and personal will.
For a rich exploration around the negative effects of praising achievements versus effort and why certain people fear failure so much more than others, Stanford Professor of Psychology, Carol Dweck has produced the definitive body of research and book called Mindsets. You can read a great summary article on Dweck’s research in this Stanford Magazine article entitled, “The Effort Effect.” When I jumped off a cliff in my career to try to write a book that eventually became Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, I was haunted for months by a voice that had no face. It said, “You are not worthy…Don’t fail…No one will want to read this crap…You are a fraud!” Sound familiar? Dweck’s findings lead to the key insight that
anyone, at any age, can become more creative if they’re willing to start trying things.
I call these “little bets,” a loss that you determine you can afford to take before making a small bet. The secret to being creative is that everyone who creates anything needs to overcome fears.
Maybe a little bet for you is writing a blog piece. Maybe it’s writing a paragraph on a piece of paper. Maybe it’s going to a Pilates class. Maybe it’s calling an old friend. The point is, and as Dweck’s research shows, we can move from a mindset based on fear of failure and perfectionism (what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”) to a “growth mindset” if we just start taking small steps toward our dreams and goals.
Writer Anne Lamott (who wrote the gamechanging, Bird by Bird), recommends writing what she calls “shitty first drafts” when starting something new. Just get as many thoughts and ideas down on paper as possible, without letting your inner critic take over. Similarly, as Frank Gehry has shared with me, the way he overcomes his fears of failure, is to “just start” making prototypes of his ideas, starting with cardboard and duct tape, crude as they may be at first. At Pixar, director Brad Bird calls people there who are willing to challenge the status quo and think differently about problems “black sheep.” Are you a black sheep?
It starts today. And, it starts small, with a little bet. It’s really that simple and that hard.
The world needs your creativity and passion now more than ever.
With all the challenges facing our country and world, we need a creative revolution, one driven by the unleashing of millions of previously undiscovered creative talents, talents that will also allow us to be infinitely more human and original.
This revolution will be improvised.
Peter Sims is the founder of the BLKSHP, cofounder of the social venture Fuse Corps, and the author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.