Why perfectionism will trip you up and how to let it go

May 2, 2018

What do you think about when you hear the word “creativity”? The word is often associated with inventiveness; florid, artistic activity of a painter throwing mad brushstrokes on a canvas or a chef mixing ingredients in an unusual way. There’s an assumption that creativity is something you either have or you don’t.
 
But this is not the case.

 

 


 
Creativity can be cultivated if you practise going through the “creative cycle” over and over again. As Prof Vince Walsh, a Professor of Human Brain Research in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL explains: research shows that the ingredients for creativity are:

  • Inspiration (which everyone is capable of and can be fostered through relaxation and the right environment)

  • Skills (which you probably have oodles of) and

  • Courage.

 
The last one – courage - is crucial because this is what will help you break out of the perfectionism that blocks your creativity cycle and can keep you stuck at the ideas stage.
 
A certain amount of courage, if not ruthlessness, is required to say: enough! It’s time to roll the old sleeves up and get practical; experiment, fail and try again. Without it, the idea never comes to fruition.
 
Take Leonardo da Vinci, for example. He is widely considered a genius. But do you think of him as an artist or a scientist? The Mona Lisa is his most famous work and yet he was also 200+ years ahead of his time in terms of his understanding of anatomy and technology.
 
But he had a tendency not to complete his work, to ignore the practical issues and not to share his findings. In other words, he was great with ideas and not so great at execution/implementation.
 
He was a perfectionist to the grave. Even on his deathbed, his final words suggested he was in the grip of imposter syndrome when he said: “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have.”
 
By the time Leonardo’s work was rediscovered, the scientific knowledge had been found through other means. Could lives have been saved and suffering averted had he let go of his perfectionism, and applied and shared his ideas more widely?
 
If you think of the Wright brothers, Marie Curie or Steve Jobs, they were all deeply engaged in the practical applications of their genius ideas and changed our world in very significant ways, including discovering treatments for cancer at the cost of their own life in the case of Marie Curie.
 
Legends in the making: Dr N and Dr G are two doctors who hired me (separately) as their coach to help them create a career and life they love. It was a joy to hear them announce, in the same week, that they had both been offered the jobs they wanted. There were ferocious ups and downs, twists and turns along the way and the result: two successful transitions out of straight clinical medicine, one into the private sector and one into academic medicine. A sweet bonus was that Dr N’s spouse was offered a new job with a promotion in the same week, too. Moral of the story: if you're going through a transition, hang on in there! Make sure you really want it and persevere remembering that there is no perfect plan. As Einstein said: genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Another insight from Dr N: You don’t have to keep pushing, but slow down and listen deeply to the place of inspiration. Then take decisive and consistent action from there. So lather, rinse, repeat and you’ll find that you’ve become the person you were meant to be and land the job that was always yours.
 
 
To break out of perfectionism, first, get clear on where you are in the creative cycle. London School of Economics co-founder, Graham Wallas, provided a four stage model which takes you from idea to implementation:
- Preparation
- Incubation
- Illumination (development)
- Verification (action).
 
Perfectionism will likely keep you stuck in Preparation or Incubation but it can show up in any stage if your emotions take hold.
 
Once you have some idea where you are in the cycle ask yourself the following four questions:
 
1) What is perfectionism protecting you from?
- List all the fears that come up around taking action. Most people will identify fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, fear of overwhelm. Be specific.
 
2) How is perfectionism rewarding you?
- List all the payoffs: a sense of control, a sense of significance (great ideas!), a sense of safety, stable routine/relationships/environment.
 
3) What this perfectionism is costing you?
- Fulfilling your potential, feeling alive, your dream…
 
4) What might be possible if you let go and move to the next stage of the cycle?...
 
Awareness is the tipping point. If you hit the nail on the head in terms of understanding your fears and desires, your natural motivation will be released and the potential that was suppressed will find its way into the world. No perfect plan. No genius required.
 
So what will you create today?
 
(Excerpt from The Success Trap book draft)
 

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