Creativity & The Imperfect Route To the Perfect Result

Some say creativity needs perfect order to flourish. But perhaps it is the disorder of imperfection that matters most

image of an orange flower for article on perfection by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

Some say creativity needs perfect order to flourish. But perhaps it is the disorder of imperfection that matters most.

Creative work that matters, that makes a difference to people’s lives, is often produced by those of us who are comfortable in isolation, immersed in work and away from the stimulation of the busy crowd. Introversion seems to be a personality trait that favours the work. But alongside many of us in that quiet place of work, there hangs the spectre of perfectionism.

Or is it an angel?

I can’t decide, because you see, perfectionism can be both a positive influence or a negative one. I regard myself as a perfectionist, but I know I’ll never get it right. Whatever I make must have flaws for two immediate reasons.

  1. There’s always someone better than me at what I do, and therefore there’s still someone to emulate.

  2. The work is never finished, and even if I never had anyone else to compare with, I still wouldn’t get it done.

I must also admit that only in certain things do I strive for perfection. Many others, I couldn’t care for less. However, regarding the work for which I care most, there is always the potential for improvement. How can it possibly be any other way?

The pursuit for perfection can become a dark force or a guiding light depending on where I am, psychologically and emotionally. If I’m frustrated with my progress, then perfectionism kills me. If I’m primarily in a good feeling place without distraction or pressure of responsibility, then perfectionism produces something useful.

The mediating factor in everything I make is always me.

In 2016, for example, I drew my first portrait. It was charcoal, and I decided to draw my subject on a whim. I had fallen out of love with my primary work, and I turned to charcoal drawing as an escape. It took me a long time — maybe eight weeks to complete the portrait. But despite family and friends telling me how great it was, I was only reasonably happy with the result.

Almost finished, with a combination of my lack of tuition and pursuit of perfection, I pushed too hard and damaged the paper. I was trying to get the shading right and didn’t realise the limits of my canvas, or indeed myself. It really was disappointing, but I had nobody else to blame.

It’s the same with writing.

Not enough time spent refining the work leaves us with an unfinished, imperfect piece. Too long working it and we can destroy it. The key is finding the middle ground where we know we’ve done just enough required.

It’s like crossing a narrow beam or a tightrope. We’re going to fall off sometimes, perhaps most of the time. But after a while (usually a very long while), we learn to find our equilibrium. It is the time spent learning, refining our skills and finding our balance that the crappy imperfect work is done.

Occasionally we come out of the cave having made something great, but honestly, that’s rare, especially in the early days. The truth of the creative process is that we must be prepared to go deep for long periods and accept that the interim work will most likely be poor to middling.

It might be accurate to say that this is indeed a prerequisite to great achievement; whatever way we may define it.

Today’s most popular commentary on the achievement of success suggests we must focus on the detail. We must be organised and strategic. We must be deliberate, thorough and efficient, and we must develop in ourselves traits of personality of those we wish to emulate.

But as Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis says in his book The Genius Checklist, the empirical evidence doesn’t support this notion.

Discussing perfectionism as a necessary element in the production of standout works of creative genius, Simonton states;

“The problem inherent in the foregoing discussion is that absolutely no empirical evidence suggests a strong positive relation between creative achievement and perfectionism as a personality trait”.

In proposing his argument, Simonton refers to the OCEAN Big Five traits of personality. He says perfectionism is associated with extreme scores on the “Conscientiousness” measure, but in one recent study, for example, conscientiousness fails to correlate positively with indicators of scientific achievement. “Openness to Experience”, on the other hand, has a positive correlation. In other words, scientific geniuses score less than the average man or woman in the street on perfectionism and score higher on openness to new and unique experiences.

For world-renowned artists, scores on perfectionism appear to be the same or even less so than their scientific counterparts. Simonton says that scientific and artistic high achievers appear to apply perfection to their area of work and disregard perfection in other matters. He says that imperfection seems to be a necessary component of high-level creative output.

This imperfection betrays itself not in the final product, but rather in the pathway to a high impact product, whether scientific or artistic. Ironically, the only permissible path to perfection is imperfection. — Dean Keith Simonton

Whatever the science says, it always represents those under the bell curve and so captures the mean. So I’m inclined to go with the evidence of my experience on these things. It tells me that although I may not be considered a creative genius, in my world and in my work, I’m the only one that matters.

Therefore, there’s always room for personal improvement. And in tandem, I have learned that no matter how long and hard I work on something, I must be prepared to let it go.

Many times I’ll produce crap, and I’m ok with that. I feel it’s necessary, and indeed welcome, because I’m in it for the work first. And that’s an improved perspective, because it wasn’t always like that with me.

So I say hit publish, fuck it. At worst, someone who doesn’t matter might criticise you. Suck it up! Because whether or not we like it, the route to the perfect result is paved with the dead bodies of imperfection.

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