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,Β  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.

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26 thoughts on “Recovering Perfectionist Starts Something New

  1. I have learned so much from you all! Artists did not start out being perfect, the more you experiment the more you learn, there are no mistakes, etc, etc!!!! Recovering perfectionist!!! That it it! Thanks so much to all of you!!!! One day I will have the courage to create a blog or something to show the “Ugly Art”!!!

    • Bring it out or keep it to yourself, the important thing is that failure teaches you something valuable. How many horrible movies have been made by good directors? It’s all about learning.

  2. l am so pleased you were able to write this…when artists make mistakes it is the way we learn. If we make mistakes but don’t learn from them then l think we never move on. The brave thing is to show those mistakes to others and then move on…well done my friend. I think it is wrong to say someone’s work is wrong or not right…it just isn’t what the beholder likes! If people give possitive feedback then that is good but criticism without help is cruel. I admire you for speaking out..here’s to you my friendx lynda

    • Everyone who tries, fails and posts a blog lets the reading world know what works and doesn’t. Maybe even encourage someone. I’m not bothered by people who tell me I’m not a quilter. It’s like telling me I’m not a ballerina–not a big surprise.

  3. Cranky people should be ignored. We as a society have come to think it is OK to speak our minds even if there is very little of worth in there. Emails because you admit to mistakes–surely they have better things to do with their time/

    While I read the comments, I was thinking there is perfectionism on many scales. I don’t mind much if I work on my art and it doesn’t turn out the way I thought. Because lots of times I work on it, and it turns out better than I hoped. It evens out, I think.

    It’s the wanting to be perfect so that everyone likes you and wants to be your friend that is a big trap for me. Maybe perfectionism is really a self destructive thing to do, because no matter what one does, you never get to be 100% perfect. It just doesn’t exist. Then we feel bad that we aren’t perfect and we worry that people will no longer like us, and then we stop trying. That’s the worst part of the whole cycle–if you stop trying, well, that’s the worst thing. Can’t improve if you don’t keep trying.

    I’m so glad you are showing your art experiments, warts and all. (Hey–wart art!) It gives everyone permission to take off their perfectionist hats, too.

    • Perfect is the enemy of good. Perfect is the enemy of great, wonderful, inspiring. As a long-term perfectionist and a recovering perfectionist, I see how it used to run my life and how much damage it did.

  4. Rsey, I have been creating “ugly art” for years! Don’t you love it?! When you set out to create something ugly and miss, it’s so much fun! I had always said “ugly art is better than no art” and a few years ago I actually found (and bought, of course) a rubber stamp that said that very thing!

    Quinn, really, who is to say these things that don’t work the way you anticipate are mistakes? They just aren’t the results you expected!

    I’m kind of thinking that the emails you received were the mistakes! It’s too bad some people can’t appreciate the gift of your sharing your art making adventures. I love reading your posts and knowing how much more we have in common every day! Thank you for taking the time every day to share your adventures with us!

    • Lynn, you once said something to me that wound up in Chapter 1 of my book: β€œI create fine art, any art I create is fine with me!” That’s such a funny and smart way of looking at it. And those emails are about the bad feelings that people get from making mistakes–and they don’t understand how come I don’t feel bad. In my recovery from perfectionism, I’ve discovered that I learn from making mistakes. Is this fun? Nope, but it’s what I do. And I’m going to make more. . .and show ’em to people!

  5. You go, girl! Rock on with trying new things – and sharing them – how else are you going to learn? and the fearlessness with which you try – and share – new things will spur other perfectionists to wander out on the occasional limb themselves. I admire and applaud your spirit and shame on those peeps who have to correct you – can you imagine the void that exists in their lives? oi.

    • You’re right, KK, a lot of that criticism comes from the “art police” place inside of us–the fearful place that we aren’t sure of ourselves. I know that place, too, so while I’m sorry for their discomfort, I won’t play with them in that contaminated place. It’s not good for creative growth.

  6. hey quinn, i too was shocked to hear that you had people criticizing you. i’m glad you don’t respond to them, but can glean through their comments and find some useful tips. i taught writing workshops for kids for years and the best thing that i ever heard from any of my students was when one little girl who has a severe learning disability responded to a negative comment from a teacher with, “ms. v. says if there’s no mistakes in a first draft, you did it wrong”. i was never so proud! (and, that btw was a run-on sentence – and i don’t care! lol.)
    i love your posts and i especially love your creations (and i am an embroiderer and a quilter)! so keep on what you’re doing because, having just discovered you, i would be very sad to lose you. thanks, vicki πŸ™‚

    • You won’t lose me. I intend to keep making mistakes for a long time! The name of the blog, after all, is “tips, slips, stumbles and leaps on the creative journey,” and that’s exactly what it is. I think there are a lot of people who feel uncomfortable with watching others display their mistakes. Either because they feel a need to “fix” the other person (so impossible!) or because their own mistakes are painful to them, and seeing others reminds them they haven’t dealt with their own. I’m moving on!

  7. Oh my gosh! I LOVE this! I have been struggling with perfectionism for my whole life! Just recently I created “The Ugly Art Book” and the name gave me permission to just do it and not worry about how it looked! And if I show it to anyone I have already admitted that it is allowed to be ugly! Thank you!!!!!! And phooey to the critics!

  8. I think it’s awesome you have a sewing machine. I teach sewing and think more people should use it in artwork. One thing to remember regarding the threads catching and breaking, when you stop make sure your needle is in the highest position by sight. Turn your wheel to ensure that, then the threads come our more easily. No little stuck pieces. Also, keep it the highest when you put your bobbin casing in, otherwise, it can just pretend to fit correctly. People who critizi sp? have no life……..It’s awesome, keep going……..thanks for your posts, I love them.

    • Thanks, Kay. I followed your advice about cutting the thread you left yesterday, and it works. I also, on the advice of my friend Rosaland, changed the needle, which was teensy and had a tiny eye. The new needle doesn’t fray the thread. Rosaland told me there are burrs in needle eyes sometimes that wear at the thread. Who knew?

    • Really, Pete. I’m writing that in my journal to remember. I often think that the way American business got in trouble was to promote people who didn’t make mistakes, thus filling the top ranks of our businesses with people who never try hard enough or are overly cautious or afraid to speak up.

    • Oh, Joanna, from time to time my posts my get linked on the grumpy group’s list. I’ll get a flurry of disapproving emails. It used to bother me, now, it just means I’m starting something new. Interesting to see that I get emails, not comments. Boy is this the wrong blog to follow for perfection!

  9. You go, girlfriend! But, really… what mistakes? There are NO mistakes in experiments… or in art making… isn’t that rule number one? If that’s not rule number one, then I’ve been playing by the wrong book all this time!! Key word is PLAY… enjoy what you’re doing and how fun it is to learn something along the way!
    P.S. maybe you can bring your machine to meet my machine and we can give them a workout together one of these days! I’m pretty good at pulling out those clumps of thread from the bobbiny thing!

    • Our machines would like each other. I’m surprised how light mine is! I made another mess last night–I’m amazed at the variety of things I can forget or do wrong, again. But I can see I’m getting smarter, if not better!

  10. Good for you girl. The more mistakes, the more you “experiment” the more you learn. Isn’t that what its all about after all?

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