The desire for perfection is something that many of the girls I teach struggle with on a daily basis. The pressure to achieve leads some of them to a resistance to taking risks or practicing creative thinking, and as a result, sometimes stops them from truly growing as artists.
Psychology Today says that perfectionism “keeps people from engaging in challenging experiences” because it “reduces playfulness and the assimilation of knowledge; if you're always focused on your own performance and on defending yourself, you can't focus on learning a task…Because it lowers the ability to take risks, perfectionism reduces creativity and innovation.”
While art seems like it would be a place of freedom from perfectionism, I sometimes see the opposite to be true, based on my past experiences and from my observations of my students. Because I developed a talent for art at an early age, I was often praised for my abilities to draw and paint images realistically. I felt confident in my technical skills, but avoided going too far outside of my comfort zone in the fear that I’d make something “bad” or “dumb.” It wasn’t until my second year of art school that I really started to push myself creatively in order to make a huge change in my creative mindset.
Today I consider myself a recovering perfectionist. I’ve reached a point where I have enough confidence to acknowledge mistakes or failures for what they are, instead of seeing them as reflections on my character. I try to model this in the classroom to help students take risks aimed at furthering their creative growth.
The following exercise is one that I’ve done with my students as a safe way to explore their own perfectionism and creativity. You can use the following teaching script to help your own students (or yourself!) practice switching their mindsets from ones of safety to ones of risk-taking and growth.
Step 1: Blind Contour Drawing
For this challenge, you’ll be drawing your shoe as accurately as you possibly can, with one caveat. You won’t be able to see your paper. In order to do this, tape your paper to a clipboard or other hard surface and rest it on your lap while you sit at a table. Make sure that you’re sitting close enough to the table so that you can’t see your paper at all. Put one of your shoes on the table and start to draw it in as much detail as you possibly can with a pen, for about five minutes. No peeking! If you think you’ve made a mistake, keep going. You’re using a pen to draw this so that you can’t erase. Keep adding details until the five minutes is up.
Step 2: Reflection
Put your pen to the side and place your drawing on the table to take a look at it. How did you do? Pay attention to any judgments your brain makes about your artwork. Are you proud of this drawing? What do you think about the way it looks? What mistakes did you make in getting an accurate sketch of your shoe? If you had the chance, would you make any changes to it? Step back from your initial thoughts and notice whether you compared your drawing to the actual shoe. Notice how much you compared your drawing to what you initially envisioned in your mind for what you wanted your drawing to look like. Pay attention to any emotions that bubble up in relation to your drawing and its perceived mistakes, but don’t place any judgments on these emotions.
Step 3: Beautiful Oops
Now read or watch the story Beautiful Oops. As you go through the story, consider how the author views his creative mistakes. Is this the same or different from how you viewed your mistakes while drawing the shoe? It often takes a mindset shift to move from viewing mistakes as a stopping point to viewing them as an opportunity to be flexible and create something new. Shifting your mindset from one of perfectionism to one of flexibility takes practice and frequent mental reminders. What we’ll do now is a simple way to practice that mindset shift in a safe environment.
Step 4: Transformation
Look at your drawing again, this time from a flexible mindset. What shapes and lines do you notice in your drawing? What imagery is surprising or sparks your creativity? Focus in on the parts that you originally viewed as mistakes. What opportunities can you see in them to enhance them or create something new?
Use your pen and as many other art supplies as you want to transform your drawing into something unexpected. Work with the lines and shapes that you’ve already drawn and pull out new images, patterns and doodles that you can further emphasize. Your drawing doesn’t have to be restricted to an image of a shoe. It is a combination of a variety of lines and can become anything, abstract or realistic, that you can imagine.
After completing this exercise, consider other areas of your life where the desire for perfection might be stopping you from taking creative risks. Brainstorm some strategies that you can use to help yourself practice flexible thinking in those situations. What are ways that you can learn from and work with your mistakes in areas other than art?