In a recent conversation with my good friend and songwriting collaborator, Peta van Drempt we talked about the differences between perfectionism and striving for excellence.
Peta asked me, “How is the creative process different for you now that you’re no longer a perfectionist?”
I answered, “Before, I did nothing. Now, I can create.”
Perfectionism is one of those terms that’s tossed around casually, the same way we diagnose the organised as having OCD, or label anyone who likes taking selfies a narcissist.
Perfectionism is also often used as a compliment. “My daughter’s a perfectionist,” the proud mother will say after her daughter has won a school prize. Or “I’m a total perfectionist”, the young interviewee boasts during that all-important job interview.
But those who have seen the inside of perfectionism know that it is illusory, unattainable, and ultimately, crippling.
There were many years when I didn’t touch the piano, because I couldn’t face what a terrible pianist I was. (I had, years before, attained 2 diplomas in classical piano, and was frequently employed professionally during my teenage years as an accompanist. Terrible, huh?) Occasionally I would try writing songs, but always gave up after the first line.
Perfectionism says, if you are not the best, you are nothing. Perfectionism says, you have no worth except for the things you do. Perfectionism says, don’t bother. Better to never try and imagine you have value, than to try and discover your own worthlessness.
Perfectionism’s a bitch.
Many years later, I sat staring at the brickwork at the old Carriageworks in Sydney, waiting for my photographer to arrive for a photoshoot. We were shooting promotional shots for a one-woman show I would put on stage the following year.
The bricks were old, chipped and discoloured, the cement work uneven. And yet, the end result was immeasurably beautiful. Just maybe, I told myself, I could take my imperfect songs, my imperfect voice, and my imperfect piano skills on stage with me, and create something beautiful too.
At a similar time, I was in the studio recording my first album, “Ever After.” I spent many nights awake over those many months, terrified of the final result. In the end, I over-edited the project, and felt that I removed so much of its vitality in the process.
By the time I went into the studio to record my second album, “Nightlight”, I was a different person. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the piano rattling on the songs “Nightlight” and “Wired and Awake”. The producer suggested we re-record those bits. I told him not to worry about it! One of the tracks, “Make Room” is a completely unedited, live take. I cringed the first time I listened back. My husband finds it the most moving track on the album.
I strive for excellence in everything I do. But I know there’s a point where it’s okay to let things slide. The end result may even be the better for it.