Saturday, June 9, 2012

Perfectionism: The Lowest Standard

 Learning to Fly, from 1970's sketch pad


“Perfection is a ridiculously low standard because you can never achieve it.”

Tony Robbins, well-known personal development guru




Perfectionism: noun: a tendency to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially: the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a tendency to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.

Are you a victim of Perfectionism?

Perfectionism can be the cause of cluttered houses, messy desks and artwork that is left unfinished or never started. We can't get started because we're afraid we can't do it just right.


If perfectionism is our standard, we cause ourselves a lot of misery. We find reasons to put things off "until I have time" or "until things are different" or "until some day when the stars are lined up just right."


My friend, Marla Cilley, aka The Flylady, adviser to slobs everywhere, says that when perfectionism rears its ugly head, no progress can be made in the effort to get control of the chaos in our lives. She advises that any little bit of effort we make towards cleaning up our homes blesses our families.


What does housekeeping have to do with your artistic practice? I'll tell you a story:

Once upon a time, when I was a younger artist, I met a woman I admired, an artist of greater skill than my own. We had a great time chatting about art. She showed me her sketch pad and it was just chock-full of stuff.  Ideas, drawings, scribbles, dreams, cartoons - it was a delight to see. 

Then she asked to see my sketch pad. Yes, I had one. Brand new, spanking clean, and not a thing between its covers. 

It was embarrassing. I explained, "You see, I don't have a lot of money and this paper is pretty expensive. I don't want to ruin the pages by drawing on them something that isn't good enough."

She just shook her head and replied, "What do you think a sketch pad is for anyway?"

The next day she brought me a brand-new sketch pad and handed it to me with this remark:

  "Here you go, use it up. It's just paper."

What a gift! A pad of "just paper" and a whole new way of thinking! No one had ever explained it quite so simply. She had given me the freedom to make progress and to let go of perfectionism. I filled up that sketch pad.


I still have it. The drawings in it remind me that we don't have to be perfect, we just have to do something.

Unfinished, From 1970's Sketch Pad


In the same way that making the bed or clearing the coffee table makes the whole room look better, a little time spent creating makes a big difference too. 




The practice of Just a Little increases your skill levels. You create momentum and good habits. Suddenly, you're on a roll!


The wonderful thing about painting and drawing is that you can improve your skills for your entire lifetime. To have a lifelong quest is a wonderful thing.


The alternative is paralysis. 

So, if you sometimes have trouble getting started, I will generously loan you the mantra that I use to this day when I feel Perfectionism trying to rear its ugly head: 

 Repeat after me, "Go ahead. It's just paper."





  1. What a lovely post Jamie! So many artist, including myself have found themselves trapped by perfectionism and the worst part is that we don't even know it. Reading your blog post really made me smile because I can identfiy with not using certain materials or source material because I thought that it would be "wasted" because I was not yet "good enough". Your mantra fits well. We just have to keep going...

    1. Hi Vanessa,
      I think I wrote this to remind myself of the trap of perfectionism, but it's funny how long it took me to write it "perfectly."

      I have to laugh at myself and watch out not to fall into that trap again!

      Feel free to share the article with someone who might need a kick in the pants.


  2. Thank you so much. I am currently experiencing a bout of Masterpiece Syndrome. Your post will help me blast out of that.

    1. Hi Amantha,

      I've never heard the term Masterpiece Syndrome, but that's exactly what it is.

      One of my painting professors said you have to produce about 2000 paintings before you get a good one, so I just think of myself as on-the-way to a good one.

      Just keep painting, like David (below) says, "Suit up and show up."

      Thanks for sharing,


  3. Several times in my life I have gotten so bound up by this Ive been terrified to put my paint out on my pallete. In meditation one morning in graduate school God spoke to me on this saying "you take care of the quantity I will take care of the quality." That freed me up to simply suit up and show up. Thanks for your post.


    1. David, I love this! If you take care of the quantity, God surely takes care of the quality.
      Just showing up is 95% of the battle.

      Thanks so much for sharing!


  4. Great post, and so true. There's nothing worse than being paralysed by fear, or even worse, perfection! You've obviously gotten far away from that with your daily sunrise paintings, that's a perfect solution, as it doesn't even given you the chance to second guess, just to put down that paint and move on. A good reminder for all of us.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      It's still a scary thing to face the sky each morning, but it's a great exercise in overcoming fear of painting.

      Just keep on showing up for the fight, I guess is the answer. And remember to breathe. :)


  5. Hi Jaime,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. it's one of the best stories I've ever read amongst the blogger's posts. I think I am one of the luckies people because I am far from the perfectionist! However my desk is always messy .... I wonder why...?

    Love your project of painting sun rises! One day you will bring your iPad to sketch it! it is one of the most forgiving art materias,l you don't feel wasting a paper it's just a digital. :-)


    1. Hi Ako,
      That's a solution I hadn't thought of - the no waste IPad. Except that with my present skill level I'd be wasting time, not paper. I need to practice.
      I hope I can learn from you.

      I'm glad you like the blog. Thanks for stopping by.


  6. Perfectionism can be paralizing but it's also the seed that keeps you from becoming complacent. The trick is in finding the balance.

    1. Hi Theresa,
      I hadn't considered that perfectionism could be a tool.

      Complacency is a feeling I've never been burdened with, but it sounds like slow death to me.

      The excitement and fun is in the C.A.N.I - Constant and Never-ending Improvement. That's the thing that keeps me moving forward. The thought that I must be perfect is what stops all forward progress.

      I guess it's a matter of personal definitions of the term perfectionism.

      Thanks for giving us something to chew on this morning.
      I'd like to hear what others think about these ideas.

      Best, Jaime

  7. Love your post about perfectionism. I learn this a long time ago, but it's nice to be reminded. To me, perfectionism is my ego self getting in my own way. I never heard the Tony Robbins quote, but I love it!

    1. Hi Paulette,

      Perfectionism keeps on popping up for me and I think that's exactly what it is - the ego taking over.

      I see you're on the coast of Oregon - what a great place to paint! You may be interested in my current project, painting the sunrise each morning over the ocean on the coast of Florida.

      You can search previous posts to find it. (I can't add links to them here in comments.)

      Happy Painting!


  8. I really enjoyed reading your post. Among the best stories I ever read one blogger's posts.

  9. zsdg hdrtnm Thank you so much dear! I’m happy to hear that you’re inspired and on your way- I wish you nothing but the best!!

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  11. post was really amazing. Now I have become a regular user of this website. Thanks for giving us so much knowledge

  12. Hi Professor Howard ! This is Danielle from Drawing class I am so glad I looked at this . I love the quote "it's just paper " , I've never really thought of it in that way when Im drawing and there is something I don't really like that I have drawn and completely erase it and try over and over again. Perfectionism is definitely somewhat a flaw of mine and I'm glad I have you as my professor so you can help me to improve on my skills

  13. Hi Danielle,
    I think it's hard to start sometimes when the assignment is something you will be graded on. Of course, you feel that it needs to be as good as it can be.
    The time to practice your drawing skills is in your small sketchbook each day. The more time you devote to that little sketchbook, the easier it will be when you have an assignment to complete. Drawing every day improves your skills like nothing else. Now, open your sketchbook and repeat after me, "It's just paper."