Have you published your essay online?
Have you sent your book to reviewers?
Have you submitted your comic to that anthology you love?
Is your website up?
Have you actually told anyone it’s up?
Have you shown your new work to… anybody?
Have you even let yourself spend time on your new work?
What’s stopping you?
I’ll tell you what it’s NOT. It’s not “perfectionism.”
Perfectionism implies that you just have really high standards for yourself. Calling your problem perfectionism makes you feel as if you are being virtuous and discerning.
That is not what’s going on here. Yes, obviously you want your work to be great. But you know—at least on an intellectual level—that the process of becoming great involves making a whole lot of OK work first, and accepting the feedback that comes from the outside world, and then utilizing that feedback to get better.
I mean, let’s get real, even if you were able to grow as a creator without feedback (which you’re not, not much, anyway), no one actually makes a whole lot of OK completely on their own in isolation, getting great before going public.
This is just not how it works, for anyone.
The people who really ARE great endured years of being not great—sometimes pretty awful really—before they got to OK, then decent, then great.
THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.
You have to be able to live with the discomfort of knowing what you want to be able to do, and not being able to do it (YET!) and putting it out there anyway.
Perfectionism is attempted future-proofing
If you can’t manage to put your non-perfect work into the world, what’s really happening is not that you’ve got high standards (though you may) it’s that you fear what other people will think. You fear that others will criticize and make comments.
That’s completely understandable. We are a social species. We are programmed from eons of evolution in the savannah to look at social criticism as a life-threatening danger. Because that’s what it actually was: if you were outcast from your tribe 30,000 years ago, that could mean literal death. Virtually no one survived without inclusion in a tribe. Humans evolved to avoid conflict and any behavior that could cause the group to reject us.
The good news is, in the modern age, criticism and sniping is virtually risk-free! It hurts, sure, but you won’t be outcast to wander the grasslands until that lion gets you. You just ignore it and move on.
And that’s the worst-case scenario for the vast majority of people.
Most people will put their work out and get nothing but support. Maybe they don’t get as much attention as they might like, but what they do get ranges all the way from 😊 to ❤ to 😭 (with the occasional puzzling 😜 🥴 … who knows why?)
(And BTW the only way to get more attention is to keep going public with your work.)
The reason this all feels so incredibly hard and high-stakes is not perfectionism. It’s individualism.
… or rather, fear of asserting your individualism.
The standard you’re holding yourself to is not coming from outside. The essential problem with making creative work is that you have to make it for yourself. You have to believe in it. You have to decide it’s worth your time and energy.
The decision to carve out time and attention to make your work is a breathtaking act of ego. You’re saying, “I don’t care what everyone else thinks I should be doing with my time. I know this is what I need to do.”
Living with that firm self-declaration is uncomfortable, if not excruciating.
It requires enormous self-confidence to believe what you’re making is worth making. Think about it: You do very few things in life that are entirely self-motivated and self-produced with little to no support from friends, family, or society at large—pure products of your own desire to act.
So that’s what we’re up against. Let’s be clear on the stakes: This is an existential battle. Existential, meaning: Winning the battle is pivotal to your existence.
You don’t have to do it alone.
Despite the fact that this is a battle—with yourself, not with the outside world—for independence, one of the best ways to win that battle is with the support of a squadron of other battle-hardened vets who are all trying to do what you’re doing: declare with their hours and with their days that this creative work is what really matters.
Sure, you can put your work out there on your own. But how well has that been working for you? If you’re reading this article, it’s because you feel the fear of self-declaration that masquerades as perfectionism. You’ve been letting it hold you back, and you want that to stop.
I believe you do deserve to both make your work and put it out into the world (if that’s your goal).
But I also believe in practicality, collegiality, and self-forgiveness.
If having support from like-minded people will help sustain you as you declare your self-belief, get that support. There is no shame in that. In fact, next time I’ll share a story of someone who’s used her creative accountability group to go from virtually never making time to draw or make comics to having that work in her daily and weekly routine, getting noticed, and getting published.
Finding a team of others who are going through what you are is key to leapfrogging the struggle to focus and make the work a part of your daily life.
It’s crucial to calming your fears of critique because you know you have people already on your side.
It’s so important to your creative growth—you’ll be able to get feedback on your work and be working more regularly.
How can you do this?
You can start by asking a few people you know (IRL or on social media) if they’re willing to have weekly accountability check-ins. Accountability groups are the secret sauce to so many people’s creative success.
The basic idea is that you meet once a week (in person or virtually, in email or an online group) and post your goals for the week, what you did last week, what you struggled with, and then you ask for and offer support.
Read more about how accountability groups work, how to set one up, and what to do once there, in my book Growing Gills.
Your work could be transformational for so many people...
if only they knew about it.
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Awesome post. It is so true that it is scary.
My problem is more “I got the work out there but no one is noticing!”
Have I got the blog post for you, Sam! Want attention for your work? You need a hook. (Video lesson!) AND Stranger danger: What’s keeping you from building the fanbase your work deserves. [Video lesson!]. Also, the Authentic Visibility Masterclass will be coming back soon…keep an eye out!
This posting is cool and accurate. I have not made my big comic book project although I’ve started several times. Instead I have painted pictures to sell at local art shows and coffee houses for the money. The comic book work keeps getting pushed back time wise.
Glad you liked it, Buzza! No shame in finding it hard to focus on. That’s the nature of the beast.
Good advice. Yes, done all that, and have Soundcloud like your husband too. Even have a Music Video trailer for my comic .. something ypu didn’t mention… https://youtu.be/JpsGDuB1IV4
“…not perfectionism…… fear of asserting your individualism”
True on so many levels!
I hate to admit it, but your article really sums up my problems. I’ve tried working on a few projects I’ve been neglecting like webcomics or even simple sketches since I know they’re fun & something I need to improve my skills. But whenever I work on the final illustrations, I look over my stuff and realize that it looks like something a lousy amateur poster on Deviantart. Then, I start freaking out and try to make everything look as perfect/professional as possible since I know potential clients or employers will see my work and need to show them I’m good enough to work on stuff like comics, cartoons, etc. Then, I either procrastinate and take even longer to finish a project so that it looks like a well polished illustration, or I just give up and tell myself I’ll do it later.
I know that I won’t become an expert overnight, but I still can’t get over the idea that if my stuff looks professional now, I’ll get an A and be offered my dream job because someone will be impressed with my work. Plus, I’m going to be 30 years old next year so I need to land a job in my field NOW before it’s too late!!
Ugh, I feel you! It’s so hard to work in a way that doesn’t line up with your vision. All I can tell you is: this project is the path to the next project. You have to finish what’s in front of you and move on to the next in order to get better.