I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which I thought I’d read before, but maybe I hadn’t, because I thought I didn’t like it, but actually, now – I think it’s great. Since so enjoying City of Girls and The Signature of All Things, I have a real liking for this writer and I thought I’d give this book another try. So glad I did. It’s full of funny, wise, sensible, utterly relatable advice about creative life.
Like this, on perfectionism.
…We don’t have time for perfect. In any case, perfectionism is unachievable. It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun”.
Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes – but it stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.
The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue. In job interviews, for instance, people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point – taking pride in the very thing that’s holding them back from enjoying their fullest possible engagement with creative living. Their wear their perfectionism like a badge of honour, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.
I see it differently. I think perfectionism is just a high-end, couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
My big breakthrough as a writer was when I decided to answer that voice that kept speaking over my shoulder. It whispered, or even sometimes shouted, “This is rubbish, this is crap, this is nonsense, this is so so so bad.” I didn’t dispute. I agreed!
“Yes, it’s crap, it’s rubbish, but you know what? I’m going to finish anyway.”
And I don’t think I’m going too far to say that “I’m going to finish” changed my life.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, Bloomsbury 2015, pp166-7