Adam Wren

Roving journalist filing dispatches from the Midwest and beyond.

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How to Beat Perfectionism and Improve Your Craft

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Here’s my confession: My name is Adam, and I’m a perfectionist.

(Hi, Adam.)

On some days, perfectionism still manages to get the better of me. And so I won’t blog. Or work on my book proposal. Or pitch a story. Instead, I’ll procrastinate. I’ll check Twitter. I’ll read and envy the work of others. Because frankly those things are easier to do—and have more predictable outcomes—than opening up a blank page and wrestling with incompleteness and imperfection.

On my better days, though, those when I open that blank page and slide my fingers over keys, it’s because I’m thinking more about practicing than perfecting.

I came across this brilliant anecdote back in 2012, while reading Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, a great little book by David Bayles & Ted Orland. In it, Bayles and Orland tell the story of a ceramics teacher who, on the first day of class, announced he would be dividing students into two groups: Students on the left, who would be graded for the quantity of work, and students on the right, who would be graded for the quality of their work.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds rated a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an “A”.

Who do you expect made the best pots? Surely those students creating under the burden of perfectionism, right? Wrong:

[Come] grading time…a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Those students who focused on churning through a volume of work, rather perfecting a small bit of it, made better pots.

Make More Pots

For me, this counterintuitive anecdote keeps me focused on hustling. The quantity of our output more than the quality of our output. It’s frustrating, sure, but freeing in a way, too. Sarah Lewis captures this tension well in her book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery. “Trying to bridge the gap between work and vision,” she writes, “can be like hearing the notes to a song without being able to finish hearing the complete tune.”

I often wonder if our greatest artists and performers are also the people who have the greatest capacity to exist in that tension between their vision for their work and their actual work product—who are resilient enough to suffer the daily disappointment of hearing the notes without being able to marvel at the complete tune.

William Faulkner said it this way: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but that’s the only way you can do anything really good.”

How do you beat perfectionism? How do you improve your craft? It’s simple: Go and make more pots.

*Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae via Compfightcc


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