Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

How I stopped polishing, and started publishing.

Photograph from Dreamstime | 181849227

I was a magazine editor, for large parts of my working life. It’s a job where content is key, ideas your currency. You only get one chance a month to impress your readers, so you want to make the best issue possible.

But once the words and pictures are on the page, it’s all about the detail. The headlines and captions, spelling and grammar, the paragraph breaks, typography and the turn arrows. It’s easy to become obsessive. And I did.

(Though the perfectionist in me wants to be honest and say you wouldn’t believe this, from my output. Deadlines being deadlines, there were still plenty of mistakes!)

  • Great ideas for books I didn’t write because I didn’t think I knew enough.
  • Repainting the bedroom walls in our first flat again and again until I got the precise shade of blue I’d imagined. Then not changing it for entire time we lived there because I couldn’t face going through the whole process again.
  • An editor at a prestigious magazine once asked me for some ideas. I spent so long researching, explaining and polishing these ideas that by the time I submitted them, the editor had left the job.
  • Writing a short feature and trying to interview every expert on the subject in the known universe. Then struggling to include all of their (often contradictory) views in 800 words.
  • Opening files with names like ‘Draft 74’.
  • Staying up all night doing last-minute tweaks and changes to a feature before handing it in to an editor who often cut those same tweaks and changes, saying I’d got bogged down in too much detail.
  • Getting snappy and defensive with said editor because I’d been up all night.
  • Wanting to start a blog. Not starting a blog. (For years.)
  • Writing thousands of words, yet refusing to publish regularly when I did launch this blog because the tone wasn’t quite right.
  • Wanting to start a podcast. Not starting a podcast. (Still ongoing.)
  • Spending hours picture researching or trying to learn HTML/web design/write new code because a blog post didn’t look exactly how I wanted it.
  • Refusing to delegate any of those tasks to someone who knew what they were doing because I knew exactly how I wanted it.
  • Leaving features I was writing to the very last minute. Not because I was disorganised, but because it took the pressure off. With a deadline looming, I had to let go of perfectionism and write the best I could in the time I had left.

Holding yourself to impossible standards is restricting, suffocating. It stops you sharing your work with the world. And it’s the sharing which often helps you learn and improve.

Eventually, I got a coach to help me with the endless procrastination and unwillingness to launch my blog, my website, my business coaching other creatives.

In an early session, I was explaining how I’d failed to launch my website yet again because neither the tone nor the design felt right. And he laughed. “You know hardly anyone will even look at it in the first year?”

I did know. I’d read and researched enough about building a presence online to know it would be 12–18 months before people came to my site in significant numbers. But I hadn’t taken on board how liberating that was.

I could play, experiment, publish less-than-perfect posts and find my way because no one was watching. So I committed to post once a week on Medium, and on my messy, clumsy site, a schedule I’ve stuck to pretty much ever since.

I had to publish even when I didn’t feel ready. So I’ve posted some shoddy articles over the past two years (on Medium and in my blog). I’ve gone down a lot of blind alleys. There have been typos and mistakes, images that didn’t quite fit the text. The site itself is still a little clunky, but I’ve made improvements gradually. And learned to let others help.

But I’ve also published articles I wrote quickly and easily — something I’ve always been suspicious of, in the past — and found they resonated with other creatives. I’ve learned from the feedback in comments and emails from readers, but also by seeing which posts you shared and read through to the end.

I’ve learned about what excites you and what pains you, where your blocks and challenges are and what you find useful. Very little of this matched what I’d assumed you wanted, when I first started posting.

I was astonished to read that Facebook once had this slogan on the walls of its corporate HQ. Why would a huge, well-resourced company want to put out anything that wasn’t as good as it could be? Good enough, to me, was a sign of laziness. Of low standards.

But I’m learning that you can continue to revise and improve. Over time, I’ve deleted weaker posts here. I’ve rewritten ones that didn’t quite work, added extra information, found better illustrations. Unlike a book or a magazine issue, in the online world we can keep tweaking, polishing, making the content more relevant.

But even the messy, imperfect writing has led to opportunities, clients, meetings, workshops, new friendships I wouldn’t now have if I was still polishing, instead of publishing.

Most of the magazines I sweated over are long gone. When discussing them now, people rarely mention the mistakes. Instead, they remember the successful covers, stories that resonated with them, photographs that made them look at someone or something anew.

We remember the books that changed us, the art that moved us, the jokes that made us laugh until it hurt, those joyful moments in a club or at a festival when the music brings the crowd together into one vast living organism. And we forget the flawed bits in between.

Again and again now, I watch clients perform their music or their comedy way before it’s ready, put out tentative first mixes of tracks, early short stories, crude sketches, not-so-grand designs. And they learn from the feedback. They grow a following. Opportunities come their way.

You just have to do the work. To do your verbs. And start before you are ready. Because the more you write, make art, take pictures, dance, design, act, invent, create, the better you get. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll write a few perfect sentences. You’ll give a transcendent performance one night, or make some art that is better than anything you imagined.

Creativity is about the tiny, incremental improvements which come when you show up regularly. The ideas that start flowing when your brain knows it can’t procrastinate its way out of it. Those accidental imperfections that make art or music truly moving.

We are not perfect, any of us. We are human. So let’s celebrate that. And get our work out there.

Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives get the success they want, making work they love. Are you ready to grow your creative business? Click to get my 10-day course sent to your in-box now. It’s free!

Writer; editor; coach, supporting creatives to step up and do their best work — and get paid for it! Find me at www.thecreativelife.net

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