Recovering Perfectionist Starts Something New

Combining fabric and paper to create mixed-media postcards is my latest art project. I’m new to sewing, after one disastrous failure when I was about 10, and spectacular embarrassment in a class of 8 to 10-year-olds when I was 30. This time, I’m not sewing clothes, I’m experimenting.

Jeff Szymanski wrote The Perfectionist's Handbook.

Experimenting is hard for perfectionists. There’s a lot of risk. You could mess something up. (Serious when you are a diamond cutter, not so much when your materials are smallish pieces of paper and fabric.) There is also the possibility of looking foolish, as you feel pleased with amateur level work. Yet I know few people who went from beginner to master in a single step. That’s what makes us perfectionists such procrastinators–if we put it off long enough, we might make it perfect. So we put it off in hopes of perfection. Sadly, perfection is elusive.

I’m a recovering perfectionist, so I push myself. I post my experiments, even my mistakes, on my blog,  because it may be helpful to someone just starting out. Or ready to quit. What made me want to quit with almost anything is the enormous amount I had to learn right at the beginning. As a recovering perfectionist, I figured out that I work on the meaning

Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D. wrote Never Good Enough.

first. What makes it important to me. That’s generally content–the Why in “Why am I doing this?” Once I have that down, I work on details. The “How,” especially the “How am I going to make this work?” if I worry about details first, I’ll never capture the overall concept.

The past few days, I’ve been posting photos of postcards in progress. I’m pleased that I’ve figured out how to thread a machine and wind a bobbin and make the machine run forward and back. I’m not worried that the pieces aren’t perfect, or that the mistakes show. I was surprised when I began to get emails telling me I wasn’t a quilter (you’ll get no argument from me), or that I should take a sewing class (hmm, wonder why?) or that putting up my mistakes shows that I’m an amateur. (Yes, I am a rank amateur on the sewing machine.) What is it about starting a new project that brings out the outer critics to chorus up with the inner critic? I don’t answer the critics, no more than I get into an argument with my inner critic.

The crucial stage is starting. If I bog myself down in details early on, I’ll never see anything beyond the details. If I try out the big picture–does this concept work? I’ll make progress. I’ll learn techniques and problem-solving. I’ll figure out work-arounds and work throughs. But mostly I’ll keep working. If I let the critic slow me down fixing details, I’ll quit. I won’t learn.

So to all the people who are letting me know I’m making mistakes, don’t expect to hear back from me. I’m busy. But if you hang around here, you will see a postcard with a zipper, or lined in copper tape, and they’ll all have mistakes, too.

Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist and creativity coach. She writes about her experiences as a beginner. Because she begins every day with an eye to making meaning.