Posted by: Jamie Hahn | June 19, 2010

Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity

Two days ago, one of my friends said (with a completely straight face), “I’m going to learn to play the piano, and I want to start a band. Do you want to be in it?” This woman is a scientist with no musical experience. I am a tone deaf fly-by-night writer who’s only musical pursuit was pretending to play the recorder in 6th grade music class. I looked at her blankly. The voice of my saboteur banged around in my head, “She’s crazy. What would be the point of that? Waste of time. You can’t play an instrument. Just laugh and step away from the insane woman.” Luckily, I have a good filter, and I was able to muster a weak, “Let me think about it.”

And I did think about it. A lot. Why was my first reaction one of such strong opposition? Why couldn’t I embrace the possibility with excitement and joy? Why am I such a wet blanket? The simple truth that I came to is one that has implications for everyone: The pursuit of perfection is the enemy of creativity.

Perfection and creativity have been at cross-purposes in my life since I was a child. The need to create is a basic human desire, right at our very core. The main problem is that creation can be a messy business, and the infrastructure of our lives rarely encourages the making of messes.  Creativity is an exploded pile of legos scattered across the floor. It’s burned pans with charred bits of food stuck to the bottom. It’s scabbed knees and twisted ankles. It’s paint covered aprons and stains on the floor.   Those messes can lead to miraculous things — things that those of us who are focused on keeping perfect order will miss.

My focus on the clean lines of perfection has served me well in life. I did well in high school. I went to a good college. I have a job that would define me as a success in society’s terms. All fine. But those are not the things that are going to bring meaning to the stories of my life. It’s the messes, the failures, the utter disasters that create the textures and patterns of a life well lived.

So, I’m considering joining that band. Not because I have any hope that we’re going to make it big (or even sound better than a dog howling at the moon), but because allowing myself the space to create without any expectations will lead to a new kind of joy. It’s a story in the making — one that I would be proud to tell my grandchildren. I want to be able to tell them about the time I joined a band just to hear the sound of my voice come through a microphone.

What will you create today?

The recorder...still gives me nightmares.



  1. Love this idea. I want to play cowbell. Have you ever heard of The Rock Bottom Remainders?

    Jessica McCann

    • Hi Jessica…Sorry for the late reply, but WordPress put your comment in my spam folder. How rude. Nothing against your comment! 🙂 Anyway, cowbell is perfect. Even I could play that, and I bet it would be fun. Yes, I’ve heard of the Rock Bottom Remainders. They were part of the inspiration for my post. I love Stephen King and Amy Tan, and I thought it was so wonderful that they formed a band with other writers. Now I just need to develop my writing and musical skills. I better get to work!!

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