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The Futility of Perfectionism in the Arts

Updated on December 22, 2011

If you’re like most people, you’re in awe of a true artist. Whether the medium is music, visual art, literature, drama...we’re entranced by a person’s ability to captivate our minds through his self-expression and interpretation of the world. And, if you’re a member of the human race, you have a creative spark within you as well. A spark that’s yearning to jump out from inside you and scream, “I’m alive and I have something to say about the world.” A spark that earnestly wants to fuel an expression of poignancy and beauty.

But we often squander that flickering creative spark with the attitude of perfectionism. After we’ve carefully wrought an idea out of the intricate needlework of our psyche, we’re all too likely to think:

- It’s not good enough

- Nobody will like it

- Nobody will appreciate it

- It’s not “hip,” “cool,” or in a popular-enough style

And too often, we come to the tragic conclusion: why bother?

What we don’t get is that perfectionism has no place in art! Yes, a true, hard-working artist deserving of acclaim won’t be satisfied until she refines her work and makes it as clear, clean and honest as it can possibly be. But that doesn’t mean that the expression itself, even in its cruder original form, was invalid. There is, indeed, perfection in imperfection when it comes to art.

Here are a few good reasons why you should always follow your creative inclinations without bending to the fear that you’re not on par with established artists:

1. Even the greats make mistakes – the only thing they have over us is that they know how to cover them up.

Let’s talk about the live performing arts, particularly music and theatre, for a minute. Professional performing artists flub their routines all the time. Seasoned actors forget their lines, and road-worn musicians get a few notes wrong. The thing that makes them so great at what they do is their self-confidence, coupled with the ability to cover up their mistakes so that you never catch them!

Check out these famous musicians in live situations, for example (Note: I'm not picking on these people, just admiring their ability to smooth out the bumps in their performances):

John Mayer with jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield. John is soloing with his guitar out-of-tune. I bet he never even realized it until the gig was over; even if he realized it mid-performance, his confidence and guitar skills more than made up for it.

Ray LaMontagne, “Trouble.” After an awkward start, he seemingly forgets his own lyrics. At 1 minute into the video, he apparently forgot the lyrics “Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone” and, thinking on his feet, replaced them with the words “Sometimes I swear this worry won’t leave me alone.” The improvised lyrics are more similar to a line from the second verse: “Sometimes I swear it feels like this worry is my only friend.”

(NOTE: I know that sometimes a musician may deliberately change the lyrics to one of his or her songs when performing live; that happens all the time. But the above seems like a genuine flub.)

Joe King, guitarist of popular rock band The Fray, singing “Heaven Forbid.” Joe King here acknowledges that he's a little out of his element. He’s clearly nervous, which most likely contributes to his somewhat out-of-tune singing here. His great vocal tone helps to make up for it. On the album, however, he sounds awesome.

John Frusciante singing and playing his rendition of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love.” 1 minute & 24 seconds into the video, notice his frustration when he gets a chord wrong. He apologizes to the band at the end. Nobody will deny that he’s an iconic guitarist, but even the greats make little mistakes sometimes.

The point of the above videos is not to point out flaws, but to encourage any aspiring performing artist with the fact that the greats are human as well. The crowd still loves the performance. Why? Because it’s the heart, the sincerity, the immediacy of the art that matters the most. Arguably, the errors have a “human touch”—perfection in imperfection—which lends even more authenticity (more on this later).

Here’s an interesting project: listen to a lot of live performances given by your favorite artists. Especially if you’re musically inclined and have a trained ear, you’ll see and hear that “human touch”—out-of-tune singing or guitar playing, flubbed notes, nervousness on stage, etc.—more often than you might think.

The audience isn't looking for perfection--they care mostly about the art and the effort behind it.
The audience isn't looking for perfection--they care mostly about the art and the effort behind it.

2. Sometimes perceived “flaws” are what confer greatness upon artists, as popular tastes fluctuate.

If you know even a little bit about the history of Western (particularly, American) pop and folk music, you know the name Bob Dylan. More musicians than can ever be counted are indebted to him and his influence on music and pop culture. Yet, he has what early reviewers and even some modern critics call a “gravelly” voice, not necessarily well-suited to singing. But sing he did, and he sang such powerful, poignant songs that the whole world stood up and took notice.

A modern rising star that is, in some ways, following in Dylan’s folk footsteps is Conor Oberst. He writes such incredible lyrics that one barely pays attention to his conversational, “plain” singing tone. Check him out singing his song “Milk Thistle”:

Let’s turn our attention to literature for a moment. Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros wrote a landmark novel called The House on Mango Street. It’s a powerful and moving series of vignettes about good times and bad times, painful realities and personal responsibilities, all told through the eyes of a Hispanic girl growing in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood. The “perfection in imperfection” here can be found in Cisneros’ prose styling. The narrative often reads like disjointed, child-like speech—but that’s the appeal of the novel. That makes it a very quick and easy read. It reflects both a cultural esotericism and the unique perspective of the central character.  Not everyone will relate to the narrator, a young Hispanic girl from Chicago, and the broken-English prose won't be to everyone's tastes.  However, if you allow yourself to be absorbed by the story, you'll be rewarded with a great reading experience.

3. The greats have performance anxiety too.

Don’t fall into the common trap of thinking celebrities and the “elite” are immune to anxiety and self-doubt. Barbra Streisand is well known for her struggle with performance anxiety, which kept her from performing in public for almost thirty years after forgetting her lyrics in a New York concert in 1967. In the book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, renowned Hollywood screenwriter Ronald Bass remarks that Dustin Hoffman once expressed self-doubt and fears of inadequacy.

That, of course, means celebrities are human beings like me and you. It also means that through hard work and perseverance, some of us will get to where they are.

4. Many artists who achieve great success aren’t necessarily the most talented—they are simply willing to take action and persevere.

Woody Allen’s famous words come to mind: “80 percent of success is showing up.” Some of the most prominent people of the world rose to the top through simple initiative. They aren’t always the best or most talented, but they’ve burned a strong work ethic into the core of their character. Imagine what you could accomplish if you were willing to sharpen your creative skills and muster up a good amount of old-fashioned determination.

All of this said, when your creative spark presents itself, don’t let it die out—follow it, nurture it, take a risk, create some art. The instructor and assignment in Langston Hughes’ renowned poem “Theme for English B” may be fictional, but the proposed task is a worthwhile one: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you— / Then, it will be true.”

Start doing something today, when you are alive and well and you have the time. You have nothing to lose, and only a sense of accomplishment and purpose to gain.


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    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks Daniel for sharing your experiences. Especially in academia, there's often so much emphasis on perfection that artists often lose the joy that should be inherent to making art. But really, I find making music (and being creative with any medium) is a simply fun process and should always be. After some of my own piano recitals, I'd be mentally scolding myself for the glaring mistakes I've made, just to find more and more audience members who would constantly come up to me and praise my performance. Then I realize, beating myself up just isn't worth it. I simply need to practice more, but in the here and now, I should appreciate the privilege of performing and the pleasure I gave my audience.

      I like and agree with the idea that perfectionism isn't reality. It's simply unattainable within the human condition. It's perplexing that we continue to seek it anyway!

      I encourage you to keep up the good work...enjoying the process for all its imperfection!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 

      10 years ago from Salt Lake City, Utah

      As a songwriter/composer, I'm also supposed to be a performer. But it was the one of the biggest, awfullest demons in my college years, trying to perform and being berated for my sloppy performance skills. As the years went by, I learned to con all my performing friends into performing some of my pieces. I found some satisfying, and others just awful. They didn't get the piece and it just didn't click.

      But what I experienced later was that if I played my music, did some preparation and really enjoyed just *playing* (instead of working the piano) I found that all those past demons about my awful skills were just plain lies. There are lots of people who like my performing abilities, although I'm far from a flawless performer.

      I think the world and its perfectionism is a an overly-rated, overly-stressful idea. There is joy in the simplicity of good performance, and even when skills seem to be slightly imperfect, audiences and listeners still get complete satisfaction from the experience.

      I think the sticking point is that what we are most passionate about, we will excel. And maybe perfectionism is really not reality. Maybe the energy of the experience is what we take with us.

      So, even though I don't truly enjoy performing very much (composing, publishing and producing are my fortés) when I do perform, I'll just enjoy the experience as much as I can. That seems to help me as much as the listener.

      Great hub. Thanks for the insights.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Tkumah: Thanks so much. Your kind words mean a lot. It does me good to know that I'm making a difference.

      klarawieck: Glad you enjoyed the hub, thanks! I truly agree with your thoughts on perfection. In classical music, for example, true artistry goes far beyond getting the notes right and "perfect." There's still a flawed human interpreter who has his or her own take on the music. That imperfection is invariably what gives the music "life." Yes, I believe we can change societal perceptions by living as an example, one person at a time!

      EnergyAdvisor: Yes, I agree, it should be personal! As you yourself wrote, the true "warrior" in life seeks no approval from others; he accepts the perfection of his imperfect being and goes forward.

    • EnergyAdvisor profile image


      10 years ago from The nearest planet to Venus

      I had to think on this for a while and thoughts on this. Never seek perfection in the eyes of someone else! If you're aiming for your inner being there is nothing wrong with it. Seeking perfection should be very personal.

      Great discussion! (voted-up)and as of now I'm a follower:)

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      If I may say, there is no such thing as perfection; only our instintive desire to be accepted and loved. Perfection is simply an illusion. It's very subjective and can never be achieved.

      I am a professional classical pianist as well, and I know for a fact that playing a piece correctly 'as written' does not mean that the performance is perfect. Far from it! There is a lot of pressure for competing musicians to achieve perfection. The problem remains - everyone has a different concept of what perfection is. Picture a reputable international piano competition where Horowitz, Claudio Arrau, and Evgeny Kissin are competing for the first prize. How can anyone decide who the winner should be? Each one has a completely different style of interpreting the music and very different piano techniques. The judges in such competition will never agree. I think our obesession with competition is absolutely ridiculous. Unfortunately,in our society that's what seems to be important. But we can always change that, one person at a time. ;-)

      Great hub. I enjoyed reading it immensely.

    • Tkumah profile image


      10 years ago

      You are a great communicator and motivational writer. You have a way of saying it and inspiring that what is real and authentic.

      When I listen to music, I think that as long as the band is together and following each other, fun is also allowed.

      I think that the self importance of the arts is the obstacle of perfection and all else for that matter.

      It is a vast topic and you touched a great point and that is what is human.

      So many times errors can save one's life. A failure to catch a train and so on.

      Rest assured that your efforts are not in vain and you are making a difference:)

      Although no one can change another, you extend your arms open wide and by that you embrace the world.

      Together, we can protect the ball of fun for all.

      I specifically liked the point you made about 'there is an artist in each and every one of us'.

      Easy to read and fun to follow:)

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      I'm very grateful for your comments, epigramman...they make me feel better than I can say in words! Glad you enjoyed the hub and got some insight! :)

      I'm a very big fan of jazz as well; nice to meet a fellow jazz head. I'm a (still aspiring and learning) jazz pianist and guitarist. The richness of the genre never fails to amaze (and sometimes overwhelm) me; of course, the richness comes from very frequent mistake-making, pushing the boundaries, and making magic "in the moment." I just attended a piano masterclass full of such incredible insight that it left me with a headache--a good one though :)

      Absolutely, I agree that all art (which definitely includes the written word) is a work in progress. The artist himself/herself is "in progress" and the work is a milestone. And even when the artist has "completed" a work and moves on to the next one, the art still has a life of its own. It's imbued with new life whenever somebody sees, hears or reads it. Every new interpretation of a work, when it's shared, adds to the collective consciousness that is the human experience.

      Anyway, I'm getting into heady stuff, as I tend to do...thanks again for the kind words and encouragement :)

    • epigramman profile image


      10 years ago

      ....I am a big big jazz fan - and jazz as you know is based on improvisation - and it must be full of 'happy and not so happy' mistakes - and all art (writing included) is considered as a work in progress - right?

      ...although I can see you have a very progressive mind

      Benny (a big capital here) THE writer - you've earned that title - and that ain't no mistake!!!

    • epigramman profile image


      10 years ago

      ....excellent hub and thought process my friend - and actually quite thought provoking - in the way you break it down, analyze it and give us insight - I say bravo to you - you have earned your pedigree as Benny THE writer - that's for sure ....

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      BaileyBear: thanks for commenting. I know how you feel actually--I love improvising and writing music. If I'm playing an old classical piece I'll usually be distracted by the new musical ideas it inspires. That's what I love about the genre of jazz in particular--total freedom, few (if any) rules.

      As for your son, it sounds like encouraging creativity is a great idea! I have perfectionist tendencies as well (which, for an ironic example, come out as I'm practicing my improvising skills on piano or guitar), but what frees me up sometimes is making myself not judge my self-expression. I'm learning that if I write certain words or play certain notes, there must be a reason. It's creative expression--it's just about as "perfect" as can be. The rest is open to interpretation.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I enjoy playing piano more when I can improvise and explore (be creative). Trying to play a piece of music exactly how someone else wanted it is hard work (as I have always struggled with sight-reading) and I found the perfectionism this developed made me unhappy.

      The great composers got to do the fun bit - create. Then classical musicians slave away trying to "perfect" what they created and miss out on a lot of freedom and joy.

      I have been encouraged to involve my Asperger's son with creative arts for emotional expression and creativity - ie exploring without judgement not reinforcing his perfectionist tendencies which make him more rigid and difficult

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      vrbmft: So many awesome points my friend...

      I happen to agree with your wife! I think human beings are by definition "imperfect," that perfection is a fallacy we've created for ourselves in our minds. We will continue to aspire to to it but will never achieve it, like an asymptotic curve. Live performances are never impeccable in the sense of accuracy, but even in classical recordings, I clearly perceive "imperfection" in the rubato styling of the soloist or the whims of the conductor. What's coming out is the humanity, which by definition is "imperfect", but when combined with technical mastery and heartfelt interpretation results in a what I feel is a "perfect" artistic expression.

      Quantum physics has always been a fascinating subject to me. I'll have to devote much more time to studying it independently and take advantage of my resources while I'm still in college. Thanks for the reminder :)

      Fascinating fact about the Native Americans; I'll have to check out Julia Cameron and "The Artist's Way" as soon as I can. I would've never thought of the baseball analogy. "Shy of Perfection" is a great phrase by the way. "Classical Gas" is a great piece; just listening to it for the first time right now!

      You've added a heck of a lot to the discussion. I can really sink my teeth into this stuff and I'm happy that I've encouraged a friendly debate. Thanks again!

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      BumptiousQ: Glad I made myself clear--put a lot of effort into that with this hub :)

    • vrbmft profile image

      Vernon Bradley 

      10 years ago from Yucaipa, California

      My wife, who is a concert pianist, says that current recoordings of classical music may be "perfected" but they are not live and any live performance by anyone, no matter how accomplished is, in her words, not perfect. A mistake or two here and there, and if you think about it, it's NOT a mistake. The musician played or sung a different note from what is written. Creativity does not eminate from perfection, it emanate from NOTHINGNESS. Check out your quantum physics. There is no perfection to duplicate. Even what is written may not be what the composer had in mind because we make "mistakes" when we put our art down on paper, so to speak.

      The native Americans do not believe in perfection and purposely "screw up" color patterns in arts and crafts works. The morning pages, see Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way, is a good example, of going beyond perfection. The critical voice inside is what determines what is perfect and what is not, and unfortunately, that critical voice is not creative. It is analytical and judgmental. It takes the creative moment and tries to punch it into a cookie cutter. Hey, baseball, really gets it. Batting 300 is an excellent batting average, but it represents 30 percent success. And baseball requires that you fail 70 per cent of the time in order to get that envied 300 batting average, because baseball requires that you step up to the plate one hundred per cent of the time knowing full well, you are 70 per cent shy of perfection. Now that is a cool term for all of us. Shy of perfection. Be shy of perfection. I think the interpretation comes as you learn the specific notes, and if interpretation goes hand in hand, I find it is easier to learn the notes. Am I preaching? Sorry! This is one of those discussions where we could start throwing paint at each other or strangling each other with piano string!! IT IS A GOOD CREATIVE DISCUSSION. The kind I like to partiicpate in OR to be more perfect, the kind, in which I like to participate! Classicalgeek, for sure, will not hire me as a coach! Or mentor! I guess, my spouting here, may be an example of Classical gas! Wasn't that a cool number? Mason Williams? Our choral director told us that the rhythm in many classical pieces is like rap today. I was stunned, to say the least, because up until that moment, I hated rap. But now, I see it has a purpose! It's just Bach or Mozart without the melody line! Anywho, enough from me. Good night and happy creation.

    • BumptiousQ profile image


      10 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I hear ya, man, loud 'n clear.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Good points; I understand what you're saying. I still see art and music though, regardless of the form, as "imperfect perfection."

      One thing that I like about the term "perfection" is that it's incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to define when speaking of aesthetics or creativity. It's a very personal, individualized thing. Thanks again for sharing your perspective.

    • classicalgeek profile image


      10 years ago

      There are so many subtle ways of interpreting classical music -- ornamentation in early music, exactly how loud or soft that forte or piano marking is meant to be, how long to hold that fermata, and thousands of other decisions that must be made when performing each piece (including how many weeks of research you are going to devote to a piece before you perform it). Yes, we are all fallible human beings, but many performers claim something quite like divine inspiration when playing or singing. I would call it not imperfection, in the case of classical music, but . . . something else. I've heard performances played by computers and other performances cleaned up by computers, and something there is definitely missing, which is why I say that perfection is only the starting point for classical music.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks for your input classicalgeek!

      The case of classical music does deserve special consideration, so I'm glad you brought it up. Personally, I still see classical music as "imperfect," but in a different way. I'm somewhat familiar with classical music, being a fan of it and having gone through the process of learning and performing classical piano pieces. You make a good point about every note having to be on target, but I believe it's in the interpretation and performance that the "imperfection" shows.

      That is: yes, the music should be played as written, but when the performer gives his or her rendition, it's full of that player's passion, dreams, fears, hopes, goals, etc. Especially when the music calls for "rubato" playing, the performance will always "imperfect" in the sense that a imperfect, fallible human being is giving it. And that very imperfection, for me, is the "beyond perfect" part that you speak of.

      A different way of looking at it, I guess. But thanks again for bringing up the subject--that's some good food for thought!

    • classicalgeek profile image


      10 years ago

      Of course, I am going to put in a note of disagreement with you. I am a classical musician, and in my field, perfection is the starting point. Obviously, we don't start out perfect, but my goal is to know the music so well I won't miss a note, even if someone unexpectedly hurls a Boston Terrier at me in measure 164.

      Of course, once every note is perfect, then we get to start on the task of interpretation. It's the "beyond perfect" part of the performance that appeals to me; but without being note-perfect, that part never gets to happen!

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      My pleasure : )

      Yup, look forward to learning. Treat it as if you're discovering hidden treasures every time you learn something, practice your instrument, etc., because that's exactly what you're doing. Take it slow and steady, go at the pace your brain can handle, compare yourself to no one else. When you learn, even as you take baby steps, reward yourself with a nice cup of tea, a movie, a nice walk, a hangout with some good people: whatever floats your boat.

      Appreciate the miracle that is to be alive : )

    • Splitty Booms profile image

      Splitty Booms 

      10 years ago from Arizona

      Hmmm..."enjoy the process of learning". That's an awesome combo of words, my friend! Sometimes the right words make all the difference. I think I might try to apply that to the endeavors in my life at the moment, as learning has been anything BUT enjoyable :) Thanks again!

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Absolutely, Splitty Booms...thanks for your comment. You remind me so much of myself, it's scary. When I first learned to play "Ribbon in the Sky" on piano, it wasn't great, but I did get better in time! : )

      Sometimes you have to slow yourself down and teach yourself how to enjoy the process of learning, or else you'll burn out quickly. It's hard to feel fulfilled as you're honing your skills, but part of what makes it better is the realization that it WILL pay off later. You're not just grinding your wheels--you're actually making progress every time you practice.

      I'm glad you feel better. Read it over again if you want another "pick-me-up" : )

    • Splitty Booms profile image

      Splitty Booms 

      10 years ago from Arizona

      I 'hopped' and found your hub. If perfect were a bad word, I'd be accused of having a potty mouth. I HAVE to have everything I create be perfect, not only in my eyes, but also in the eyes of anyone I think might ever hear/read/see it. Therefore, I've said "why bother" regarding my music, my writing, and my art. But I blew it at the beginning...when I had the chance to really learn these arts, I got discouraged because I didn't get "that's perfect" as a response when I first started out. Dumb, I know...nobody starts out perfect. But I wanted perfection IMMEDIATELY, right from the start. I wanted to sit at a keyboard and play "Ribbon In the Sky" perfectly without even knowing the chords.

      So I agree, trying to be perfect ruins art of any medium. Thanks for this, it does make me feel a bit better.


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