perfectionism and learning how to do nothing

July 18, 2012 |  Category:   life rambling

I have 2 girls who approach making things very differently. Mia goes at something fearlessly and often without a plan. She wings it and works in broad strokes. She’s not the neatest, nor does she care. When she’s done, she’s done. Claudine is the more meticulous one. Despite being nearly 3 years younger than her older sister, she can color inside the lines more accurately and has done so for several years already. She labors over projects and can spend hours drawing tiny details. She is very focused. The difference between the two was never more apparent when I happened to find Claudine very focused with a pen and paper a while ago. She was concentrating on tracing a paragraph of tiny Korean characters through the back of a scrap piece of paper that she found near my dad’s printer. The writing was all backwards since she was tracing from the back of the paper, but if you held it up to a mirror it was legible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid do anything like this before. Mia wanted to try it too, but after carefully tracing 2 characters in reverse, she scribbled the rest of the sentence away.


It’s both amusing and odd to be able to see yourself in your child. Can you guess who takes after me? But sometimes I wish I was a bit more like Mia – looser and less controlled, especially when I see how Claudine’s perfectionism can torture her. My frustrations don’t manifest as 20 minute crying tantrums when I can’t get something just right, but who knows, maybe that would be a healthier way of releasing frustrations than internalizing it. I find it really interesting how these behaviors and personality traits manifest so early in children and I wonder what that means for her as she struggles with this as she gets older. Maybe she’ll outgrow it, but maybe she won’t.
I know I’ve been fighting these perfectionism demons forever since I was a kid myself. Looking back, I can honestly say that I probably didn’t enjoy the experience of making things as much as I should have. Even as a child, I created art for an audience and less for myself. It was rare that I made something just for the sake of making something because I was always too focused on the end product – the end product being perfect. Anything less was unacceptable and would often result in a project getting abandoned or worse, sometimes never started. How sad! When the fear of making anything less than perfect prevents you from even trying at all. But I’ve been guilty of that far too many times than I’d like to admit to myself. So how does one reverse this? How do you learn to enjoy making just for the sake of making and not care what the finished result will be? How do you start a project without all the pressures of it being “A Project” with a capital P?
I think I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been putting a lot of extra pressure on myself in the last few years. I’ve been stuck in this mindset that everything that I’m working on in my spare time needs to be some kind of revenue generating product, whether it’s new stuff for the business or some other kind of business venture. There’s been so much pressure, that things are happening painfully slow or not happening at all which often results in guilt for not making things happen fast enough. I’m always harboring this general feeling that I’m not doing enough. But I know where this is coming from. This is all coming from a place of wanting to have our business support us entirely one day so there is less pressure on my freelance work. It’s about trying to build a future when the current view of the future is hazy at best. There has been a lot of anxiety about that lately. The lack of a plan, the lack of any real feeling of movement or growth. Suddenly, 10 years before the first kid goes off to college doesn’t seem so far away anymore. How will we afford college? How will we retire? Will we still be doing what we’re doing 5, 10 years from now? It’s enough to keep you up at night.
But then something sort of happened this summer. I did nothing. I spent whole chunks of time doing nothing without feeling any guilt. It was okay. I even had vague visions of actually reading a book again or picking up a pencil to draw. That is not to say that all the pressure, all that “stuff” isn’t still floating around my head. It’s still there and will always be there, but the guilt has tempered down.
I find it amusing that I’ve needed to learn how to do nothing, and by definition, “nothing” meaning doing things that have no bearing or weight on the future. I’ve been racing against an imaginary ticking time bomb of my own creation for so long that I’ve lost sight of the fact that you can’t force ideas. I’m still waiting for a really good idea, but I’ll have to be a little more patient and a lot more relaxed. And this perfectionism thing? Comes in handy for certain tasks, but it’s a major pain in the ass for anything else. So my summer goal aside from doing more of nothing, is to make something – anything really – and not care if it’s perfect or mediocre or just downright ugly. Just make for the sake of making, nothing more.

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  • Sabrina July 18, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    I share these feelings too. Thank you for this post.

  • wendy July 19, 2012 at 12:42 am

    On the spot as usual Jenna. I have issues starting something because I spend forever coming up with the perfect plan, and then I’m paralyzed because nothing is ideal. It’s interesting what you’re observing in Mia and Claudine. Somehow I always thought the eldest child has more of a tendency for meticulousness and perfection (even though I’m the youngest – I thought I was a fluke ). Hm, maybe not.

  • RebeccaNYC July 19, 2012 at 1:41 am

    EXACTLY what I have been working on…here’s an excellent article about this subject:

  • Christine Witt (Brush Dance) July 19, 2012 at 1:53 am

    Really like the idea of just diving in and creating – no audience, no self-judging. Just. Do.

  • Claire July 19, 2012 at 2:15 am

    I can sympathise with you on this. I’m more of a Claudine type, but I come from a family of painters and carpenters whose art is less precise, meticulous and detail-oriented than my own. I’ve always felt out of place at times when we work on arts and crafts, and so far the solution for me has been to experiment with watercolors. There aren’t too many ways to exert control or implement any sort of “plan” with them, so as a medium it really lends itself to letting go and allowing the paint to run its own course. I tend to do them on small watercolor postcards so that as soon as I’m not feeling it I can just move on to the next one. Not nearly as much pressure as pen and ink, or clay, or oil paint. Just a thought.

  • satsuki shibuya July 19, 2012 at 2:16 am

    your thoughts. the title. it was just on spot with thoughts that have been lingering in my mind. it’s hard when one is already predispositioned to do things perfectly, to want things to be done at a certain level and can’t accept less. i used to joke about my perfectionist ways with people saying that it helps to keep me motivated, but recetly, i’m being more truthful to myself in saying that it actually drives me more insane than being productive. it stresses me out rather than hightening my creativity. i noticed that it actually is counterproductive to what i’m wanting to do, whIch is to create things. things that hopefully bring joy & happiness to others.

    doing nothing… opens the mind. 🙂 i’ll be doing more of this too.

  • mette / ungt blod July 19, 2012 at 2:20 am

    beautiful post.
    I see more of me in Elinor than Dennis, which means more experimenting and less planing – and we try to encourage this by praising her for drawing, not for the end result itself -but really I believe it is something very rooted in your personality if you are a perfectionist or not.
    What I really relate to is how all my side projects these days have to be full of purpose – they should help me get a job in the future, not just be about relaxing. So I am planning to challenge myself to some non-digital projects that are meant for nobody and nothing. …as soon as I have some time left over 🙂

  • janine July 19, 2012 at 4:08 am

    OK, so this post proves what a fabulous writer you are! I am a teacher, as well as a mother and I could never talk about, let alone write about children in such a detailed way. You really painted a picture of their different personalities. Wow!

  • Hannah July 19, 2012 at 4:27 am

    Thank you Jenna for putting this so well. I share a lot of these experiences too. I think that the progression from enjoying drawing/making things when you’re young to doing those things as your career can have a big impact. When you have ambitions for your career or business (especially if they’re not totally defined) it is easy to feel that you have to make every bit of time or creative effort feed into that directly. I’ve recently found that trying to learn a new skill helps with this…I was invited to take part in a puppet-making workshop a few months ago…I’d never done it before, and so although I admit I wanted to do it perfectly first time I didn’t actually know what ‘perfect’ would be for me in this new field…so that sort of tricked me into exploring something with a little less pressure than usual. And the things I learned then fed back into my illustration/design work, but this felt like an unexpected bonus rather than a planned outcome. Hope you continue to enjoy this little shift in how you feel and think about things xx

  • mei July 19, 2012 at 6:07 am

    for the perfectionism I can’t recommend this highly enough:

    and thanks for this post, you have this way of articulating so well what I’m thinking about 🙂

  • Liz July 19, 2012 at 8:45 am

    I’ve known for a while that my own perfectionism is destructive but only in the last six months have I started to think about the possibility of trying to ditch the habit when it is having a detrimental effect. I’m not very good at it (and this in itself is stressful, being unable to turn down the perfectionism is a challenge to my perfectionism) but I hope that the process of thinking about the why and the how might help me.

    I’ve tried learning new things. I love trying new skills but the challenge has always been accepting that early attempts at making something might be pretty bad. I’m experimenting with saying it’s ok to be bad at something when I’m learning and this has been quite liberating. It’s not a sustainable solution but it helped while I was learning!

    I was vaguely aware as when I was little that not everyone took the care that I did, not so much at home but at school it stood out. With hindsight the praise heaped on things like drawings and paintings might not have been the most helpful thing but the need to stay in within the lines when colouring in didn’t come from my teachers. It’s innate.

    I think I really started to notice my perfectionism when I left home to go to University but as an adult I’ve also been able to see how my parents deal with their needs to be perfect. I’m very like my dad; like him I procrastinate and delay starting – what if I can’t do this well enough – and paralysis has been known to set in. I struggle with praise as I’m never really happy with the end result and I therefore can’t understand why others say it is great. And I find it really difficult to finish projects.

    I used to think my mum wasn’t a perfectionist but I now think she is, it’s just she is a more realistic one. I helped her with a work project recently and noticed that she managed her expectations of what could be done within the time available. She was also really clear about what she wished she could do better and really comfortable about asking for help. She had just as much attention to the detail as me but had a fraction of the stress. Reading your post and the other comments has made me want to ask her how she does it. Maybe the answer for me is to learn a more pragmatic form of perfectionism.

    Sorry for the long comment but thanks for (yet) another insightful post. I’m off to see if I can get my mum on Skype…

  • Maria July 19, 2012 at 8:54 am

    I feel like you just climbed inside my brain…an aptly timed post! It is very difficult to be a perfectionist child- even more so when your mother is a perfectionist to! I remember spending hours and hours by myself(only child) shut up in my room drawing when I was very small. Nothing would come out right so I would crumple up/rip apart TONS of paper. my mom would enter the messy room and freak a bit- ” don’t you have pride in your work! Don’t crumple it all up!” um yah mom, your missing the point. All this stuff sucks!
    I have never found perfectionism to be motivating. It has always been the opiisite for me. We need to kill that old adage “anything worth doing is worth doing right”. This has caused most perfectionists to never do ANYTHING!

  • oilandgarlic July 19, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Great post. I am not a perfectionist in most things, but my husband is so I understand the conflict all too well. For me, and this may help you also, the best way to “let go” of perfectionist tendencies is to take up a hobby that I love but am not good at. Right now I take a dance class. I can’t turn well and it takes me a long time to learn routines but when I’m in class I don’t focus on all the big stuff in life and just let go…

  • Chloe July 19, 2012 at 11:38 am

    I know exactly how you feel. It’s so easy to get caught up in “being productive” and working towards an end, that spending time on anything less deliberate can feel self indulgent or like a waste of valuable time. But who wants to live like that? For me, it’s like finding balance is a constant battle. I think I’m doing it wrong.

  • Sora July 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    When you are a parent, a business owner and a perfectionist it is hard not to feel this way. Thank you for revealing what so many of us are feeling right now. I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote about doing art for the audience and not for yourself as a child. I was very much the same way — I loved the adulation I got from my parents and teachers when I created something that they liked. As designers, we are always catering to the client, customer, stakeholders. So, we are trained to continually think this way. I think there is more to doing “nothing.” It is harder for some of us. It is about about re-learning and that is sometimes difficult.

  • Nataliya July 19, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    I feel like we (hubby and I) need to learn to do nothing. Between parenting, fulltime work, masters programs and doing home renos we no longer remember what it is like to just not do anything or not plan anything.

    We are also on the lookout for THE idea. And I feel that slowing down might be exactly what we need.

  • Christina July 19, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    About college and retirement… I have come to agree with the idea that parents should be sure they are saving enough for retirement before saving for a child’s education. I can borrow money to send them to college, but not for retirement. And I don’t want my girls to have to worry about caring for me financially as I grow old.

    This is not to say that I’m not saving for my girls’ educations now, but for months when I have to choose whether to put money in my Roth or the 529 savings plan… I always choose the Roth.

    I realize this post was more about being a perfectionist. Just thought I’d throw my two cents in.

  • Claire July 19, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    I’ve worked with kids who can’t complete tasks because they end up ripping apart work that they feel is no good. I think a lot of it is internal/ a personality thing, but some of it is from subtle messages sent to us by the world around us. (e.g. when kids show us things they create, saying “good job! or beautiful!” could send the message that things need approval. Instead stating what we notice and asking them what they think about it/ to tell us about it might be different/ better option.)

  • Claire July 19, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    also – is that at Construction Kids? Love Deb and their programs!

  • Jenna July 19, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    @Claire – it is Construction Kids! At the Navy Yard. And thanks for your comment. C just had a tantrum today in fact, because she couldn’t draw the body of a pony to her satisfaction. It went on for nearly an hour and she abandoned the drawing. It’s hard to know what to say to her or how to handle it…

  • Lola July 19, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    I totally resonate with this post. You are so awesome at capturing the personality traits of your kids, yourself and people at large. Thank you!

  • Alison July 20, 2012 at 6:47 am

    I’ve always been more like your elder daughter. Not that perfect isn’t a goal. I doubt anyone wouldn’t want perfection if possible. But in my mind, it’s always okay to me if I didn’t achieve perfection. I find that having a more relaxed attitude also means healthier physically. Being healthier also makes me happier, and the cycle goes on and on.

    Love your blog by the way.

  • suzanne July 20, 2012 at 7:59 am

    you may have already read this from the Times this past June, but this article was spot on. I hope you enjoy it…

  • Jenna July 20, 2012 at 11:00 am

    @suzanne – Yes! I did read that article. An interesting read, indeed…

  • Lissa July 20, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I’m sure this post has struck (and will continue to strike) a chord with other momtrepreneurs out there trying to do it all…and perfectly! I hope you’ve “done nothing” more and more often in recent weeks. Enjoy!

  • Claudia M July 20, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    this post really speaks to me…I was in the middle of doing some writing when I decided to hop online. I graduated from my creative writing MFA program about a year ago, and it’s been really hard for me to create since then- I just feel so much pressure to make the “perfect” piece of writing. In a world that’s so oriented towards end product and success, it’s easy to lose sight of the meandering and (often) slow process of creativity itself.

  • Caroline July 20, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Echoing many of the comments above.. this post really resonates with me and what I’m thinking through right now! Its why I love your blog. Articulating these internal struggles is half of it and sooo important and helpful!

    Aside from our own personality traits there is just a lot of pressure we directly and much of the time, indirectly, feel from the environment and society at large. To produce produce produce, and I find *quickly*. Everything is about immediate gratification. The tech we surround ourselves with certainly doesn’t help! As someone mentioned, the practice of being a designer doesn’t help!

    But I’ve been reversing my own tendencies by using tech.. my ipad to be exact.. to make silly drawings every day. The goal is to move to a book. And real media. And take longer at it. And then, big pieces. But I am just so happy at having kept this form of drawing up. It feeds my soul. It is good in just about every way! My eyes are looking at things differently now.

    Keep thinking this way and no doubt you’ll be making / playing / seeing soon!

  • zivar July 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    thank you for this.. i also struggle with being a perfectionist and have been unlearning quite a lot lately. it is frustrating, can instantly produce more anxiety, but ultimately it is a great relief and it opens up unexpected and happy doors.

  • Jackie July 20, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    I so relate to the idea of the “tortured perfectionist”. I too have been learning to do nothing. It’s very hard but I’m learning that it has it’s rewards.

  • Heather M July 21, 2012 at 12:51 am

    Great post. I absolutely love it when you ponder things this way. Just very inspiring and insightful, with this nice sense that we are all sort of in it together as far as the flaws go, and we just keep trying to learn what’s next.

  • Seema August 4, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    What a wonderful post Jenna. Your blog is always a pleasure to read but this post stands out particularly because I have known the absolute agony of perfectionism too. It can be a hugely frustrating characteristic to possess, but we are all different and approach situations in different ways. Brilliant writing. 🙂