Perfectionism Is About Other People
Get over your fear of other people if you really want creative success
I’ve lost track of how many people have told me that they’d never show the draft of their book to anyone. This admission is often accompanied by the qualifier that they’ll show it to someone “when it’s ready.” Another hindrance to creative work that I saw in my time as a history lecturer was from students who would tell me that they struggled to get work in on time because they thought of themselves as “perfectionists.”
Both of these varieties of perfectionism are about other people, not you or your work. To really succeed in creative endeavors, you have to get over the fear of other people.
It’s possible your novel is garbage — but you’re a lousy judge
I think the first kind of perfectionism — the “circling novelist” — is driven by the fear that someone else might confirm a deep-seated suspicion that your novel is not very good.
Hannah Arendt, reading Plato, argued that the finished work can only ever imitate the model in the mind’s eye of the craftsman who began it; that the work of our imaginations is always spoiled by the work of our hands.
This is similar to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s idea of “the constitutive lack.” Your book is an impossible but necessary object, a thing that defines you and drives you but that you will never attain.
Your work will never live up to your own standards. That’s why you are its worst judge. This is also why no work of art has ever existed without an audience. You need a reader for your book to become a book. If you’ve never shown it to anyone, you’re cutting yourself off from the only real path to improvement.
You are not your work — and other people make it better
The second kind of perfectionism — the “procrastinating student” — is driven by an over-identification of the artist with their work. The appeal to perfectionism is a plea that they themselves ought not be judged on work that doesn’t reflect their potential.