I’ve been re-reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s terrific book, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.” This led me to find her riff on perfectionism (interview clip above and the highlights below). Here’s Liz Gilbert on perfectionism — translated for musicians.
Liz Gilbert calls it what it is — fear
“A lot of people, including myself, use the word perfectionism pretending it’s a fault when we secretly think it’s a virtue.
So the trick is to expose it. To pull off its mask and to call it by its real name — which is fear.
It’s fear that you’re not good enough.
Fear that you’re not worthy.
It’s fear that you’re going to be revealed, uncovered, exposed, betrayed, criticized — all of it.
And so you’re trying to mask that absolute terror by never making a misstep.
I feel like when I call my perfectionism fear it’s easier to actually make it go away because ‘fear’s’ not as sexy. It doesn’t sound as fancy. I always say that perfectionism is just fear in high heels and a mink coat. It’s a disguise.”
Here’s how I translate this for musicians
We use perfectionism as an excuse to not put our work out there. This can take the form of . . .
A. Delaying making a recording, or delaying editing it, releasing, or promoting it. This is our fear that it (and therefore we) are not good enough.
B. Avoiding sending out pitches: we tell ourselves we don’t have the perfect wording, or we don’t have a close enough contact, or our sound samples aren’t good enough. This is our fear of rejection.
C. Procrastinating the launch of a project we’ve been dreaming about for years. We tell ourselves we have to take care of everything else (and everyone else) first. That we need as “clean slate” before we can tackle what would challenge us the most (and help us become the artist we are meant to be). This is our fear of failure (or success).
Perfectionism isn’t about having high standards
Look, we’ve all been trained to ‘practice until it’s perfect.’ We all hold ourselves to impossible standards and are reaching for impossible ideals.
And at the same time, we all know that there’s no such thing as perfection in the arts.
And unfortunately, perfectionism often shows up in performances as an attempt to micro-manage our own music-making. To take a ‘”command and control” approach. Which of course, flies in the face of creativity, inspiration, and spontaneity. We need to be able to let go and let loose in performances.
So yes, we need to have high standards, but we also need to be pushing ourselves to ship the work — to let go and let loose. To dare to launch and to stretch ourselves out past our comfort zones. That’s where the artistic growth happens. It’s not perfect but it’s where we can find our true artistic voice.
Liz Gilbert on the lie that fuels perfectionism
Here’s more from Liz:
“Perfectionism is the lie that says that there’s some kind of rent that you have to pay to be here on this earth and that you’ve got to master it in order to be allowed to be here. When there isn’t one. It’s like you’re auditioning for a part you already got. You get to just be here. You don’t have to be perfect or even good. You don’t have to actually do anything. You’re allowed to just be.”
At the root of perfectionism and fear is the belief that we are unworthy. That we need to DO SOMETHING SPECIAL in order to belong, be accepted, and be loved.
In terms of what to do about this belief I’ve found that it doesn’t much matter how you got there . . .
What matters is that you actively work to change
For this I have NOT found mantras to help: they are no match for my negative self-talk.
And dissecting one’s childhood has its limitations as well, since we can can’t change the past.
What I HAVE found helpful is to take action. To call yourself out on the fears and self-limiting beliefs. The whole point is to get into forward motion.
Because unless you call yourself out on this, unless you spot your fear / perfectionism, you’re going to stay stuck in your comfort zone, and in your old beliefs, and never reach your potential. It’s way too easy to go along with the delaying, the procrastination, the accepting of excuses as truth.
Call yourself out on the fear that’s blocking your progress
Once you see your perfectionism as fear, then at least you recognize the real choice you have.
You can either say, “Bring it on!” and walk straight into the fear and get your work out there — or you can continue with the hiding and avoidance. It’s your choice.
- Spot your resistance in action
- Make your choice and follow through
- Rinse and repeat
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