Regular readers know that I am am a huge fan of Stephen Pressfield’s ‘artist user manual’ book “The War of Art”. A central focus of the book is the concept that Pressfield names “Resistance”, and it symbolizes all of that psychological stuff that keeps us from creating our work.
Resistance = Perfectionism?
I’ve come to believe that what Pressfield calls Resistance is another name for Perfectionism — at least for me. Perfectionism is a tricky term, because most people (as I once did) think they already know what that word means, and that it doesn’t apply to them. I suggest that anyone who can commiserate with the lack of motivation to start or maintain progress in their chosen creative outlet look into perfectionism a bit deeper.
My research and reading led me to a quite succinct and insightful book that really opened up perfectionism in an easy to understand manner, and offered specific solutions to get past it — yes, it thankfully can be unlearned, and I discuss below some of the excellent tools I’ve discovered to do so.
Hillary Rettig‘s The 7 Secrets of the Prolific is positioned as a guide to being a more productive and prolific writer — and it succeeds there. But I feel the chapters on perfectionism are the perfect primer into the topic, particularly for creative types. And this includes any creative types, not just writers.
Regarding misconceptions about perfectionism, Retting states plainly on her site:
“Perfectionism is a toxic brew of antiproductive habits, attitudes and ideas. It is not the same as having high standards, and there is no such thing as ‘good perfectionism.'”
Retting has a nice overview page on perfectionism on her website: Liberation from Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Blocks. As she explains, this page “…summarizes the five major and ten minor characteristics of perfectionism I’ve identified as of June, 2013. After reading it, please continue to the solutions page.”
I’ve isolated Rettig’s 5 major characteristics of perfectionist thinking below, but I highly suggest heading over to her site and reading her descriptions and examples in full.
The 5 Major Characteristics Of Perfectionist Thinking
- Defining success narrowly and unrealistically; punishing oneself harshly for perceived failures.
- Grandiosity, or the deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you.
- Shortsightedness, as manifested in a “now or never” or “do or die” attitude.
- Overidentification with work.
- Overemphasis on product (vs. process), and on external rewards.
Procrastination: Perfectionism’s Evil Henchman
Rettig also addresses procrastination as well. I have come to see procrastination as more of a side-effect of perfectionism rather than a separate problem. In short, a perfectionist has externalized their ego into their work, and therefore cannot risk anything less than the impossible-to-achieve perfect expression — since this would result in a devaluing of the ego/self due to the over identification with the work. Therefore, the ideal solution within this perverse paradigm is to not create at all.
Of course, this conflicts with the desire to gain ego-gratification from attention, rewards, accolades and the like, so the mind has to hide this process from the conscious awareness. Thus, the procrastination behaviors rise to the forefront in order to “excuse” this lack of creating from the conscious mind.
Once you are made aware of these processes, they become very apparent and transparent. You, like me, might come to the realization that these thoughts and behaviors you once thought were “typical” are not in the least.
If you want to learn more about procrastination, I highly recommend Dr. Tim Pychyl’s informative procrastination podcast, iProcrastinate, as well as the book “The Now Habit” by Dr. Neil Fiore.
Fixed Mindset vs. the Growth Mindset
You’ll definitely want to do some reading into the concept of the Fixed Mindset vs. the Growth Mindset as well. Building on recent breakthroughs in the study of brain neuroplasticity (meaning the ability of the brain to constantly change and make new connections through learning throughout life), Dr. Carol Dweck has discovered what I feel is another piece in the perfectionist/procrastination puzzle. Dweck’s mindset overview on her website puts it nicely:
“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”
Dweck also offers some first steps to changing a fixed mindset into a growth mindset. And Maria Popover over at the excellent Brain Pickings has a great overview on the topic. Dweck has also published a book on Fixed vs. Growth Mindset as well.
The growth mindset also dovetails quite nicely with another book I’ve found essential to deciphering this puzzle, George Leonard’s “Mastery“. Mastery deserves an entire post in itself, but in the meantime I’ll link to this page, with a nice overview of the concepts in Mastery. It’s not a substitute for reading the full book.
Leonard’s key insight for me was the Mastery Curve:
Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it…the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way…To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so–and this is the inexorable–fact of the journey–you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere
Leonard’s insight into the “Mastery Curve” is in itself worth the entire book, but there’s so much more.
You’ll also benefit from his identification of the three types of personas many adopt when approaching the challenge of acquiring new skills or building on existing ones: the Dabbler, the Obsessive, and the Hacker.
Ultimately, Leonard’s perspective is similar to a Stoic approach where you are focusing on the practice, not the product.
Scott Adams would call this “Systems, Not Goals“. Adams’ book “How To Fail At Everything And Still Win Big” goes into this in much more detail and is also highly recommended.
The resources mentioned earlier in this post on procrastination, perfectionism and the fixed mindset identify the issues we are dealing with, and “Mastery” helps to put them behind you and establish new and healthier behaviors, thinking and approaches to creativity.
Learning about perfectionism, procrastination, the fixed- vs. growth-mindset and the Mastery Curve have been unbelievably helpful in untangling the mental knots that have crippled my motivation and creative output over the years.
I’ve done a lot of reading, researching and listening and I feel these sources are the ideal starting points to discover these topics in depth for yourself.