Overcoming The Perfectionism Trap

What I learned from a cat about creativity and perfectionism

As a creative it’s easy to get lost in the detail, particularly if you’re a perfectionist. A whole project can be held up while you debate the perfect word choice, shade of pink or width of a line. When I start to agonise over the details I think about this…

My stomach rumbled. It would already be dark outside. I hoped Steve had started cooking the dinner and hadn’t got carried away playing Zelda again. That had a habit of happening when it was his turn.

“So which one?” My boss asked again for the twentieth time as if keeping me here in this windowless room for another two hours was bound to spark an idea. Not that it was really a problem, it was more case of heads or tails.

“The client is expecting an answer” she said.

“Well in that case I’ll materialise one out of my butt crack” I didn’t say.

I stared again at the data before me, the numbers beginning to blur as the artificial light stung my eyes. I rubbed at them as I looked down at the two chunky directories in front of me. The kind I used to watch strong men like Geoff Capes pull apart when I was a kid. Each had a blue cover with an image identical in all respects apart from the inclusion of a cat on one.

We’d been commissioned to run focus groups asking members of the public which cover image they preferred. Sweet of the company to ask as it was a free publication shoved through your door, whether you liked it or not.

Maybe they assumed as the UK is a nation of animal lovers that the cat would win hands down. Or perhaps they thought the large number of dog lovers in the land would be repelled by a feline. Either way it was a reasonable idea to check it out first with some research.

The thing is though nobody cared.

Cat or no cat, it made no discernible difference to the focus groups. Schrödinger’s cat may be important to quantum mechanics but in the world of directories the pussy didn’t figure. Yet my boss was determined to keep combing through the data until we found a winner because that’s what we’d been paid to do.

I’m sure the designer had agonised over the images for hours before they honed it down to two options. Tabby cats, marmalade cats, tortoiseshell and blue. Full body profile, head and shoulders, cheeky bum pic, no cat just a tail, single solitary paw print, no feline traces at all.

There was probably a meeting of at least half a dozen department heads to approve the designs at every stage. They obviously cared a lot about the details. It was important enough for them to dedicate a chunk of their budget to testing it out on the public.

I must say I’ve done it myself. Working on creative projects, stressing over the use of a word here or a font colour choice there. It happens in all creative realms -

  • Should that character be called Caitlin or Marissa?
  • Will the necklace be edged in gold or rose gold?
  • If you add one more fleck of paint to the corner will it improve the composition or make it worse?

It’s easy to obsess about details because you want it to be perfect. But perfect isn’t possible and sometimes you need to check yourself and ask -

  • Is this taking a disproportionate amount of time?
  • Does the opinion of your Aunty Flo or the guy at the coffee shop really matter, are they your audience?
  • Does your actual audience even care?

It can’t be perfect and doesn’t need to be. While it’s good to canvas opinion from people you trust and who are relevant to your market they may not be able to give you a clear winner. Look, would you feel differently about your favourite book if one of the character’s names had been different? At some point you just have to press ‘go’ and release it into the universe.

It’s great that the directory people wanted to know the opinions of their users but they should also have been prepared for whatever feedback came. Because ‘I like both’ is great feedback. It means you can choose to go with your preference and after all it’s your creation and you’re ultimately in charge of bring your ideas to life.

(Any typos or grammatical errors created in the making of this post are on purpose to prove the point :-) )