How to Beat Perfectionism & Finish What You Start
“Look around you, the evidence is everywhere: People don’t finish. They begin ambitious projects with the best of intentions, but then they get stuck in a mire of insecurity and doubt and hairsplitting… and they stop. So if you can just complete something—merely complete it!—you’re already miles ahead of the pack.”
It sums up so much of my own experience in filmmaking (and other creative endeavors). And I’ve seen those same behaviors in countless other filmmakers since I’ve started this site.
So let me ask you some tough questions… and be honest here.
- Do you find yourself constantly waiting for the perfect circumstances or resources before you embark on a project?
- Have you ever spent months, even years, trying to get every last line in your script to be perfect?
- Do your films tend to stall out in pre-production because you can’t find the perfect location? Or you can’t raise the amount of money you need to perfectly craft your vision?
- Do you find yourself shooting 27 takes of some scene when everyone knows you got it on the 5th take?
- Do you spend weeks at a time cutting and recutting the same scene over and over, somehow making everything worse in the process?
If any of this sounds familiar, you my friend might have a gnarly case of perfectionism.
And trust me, those tendencies aren’t just delaying your work, they’re holding you back in your career.
So that’s what we’re tackling in this episode of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast. We’re going to explore why perfectionism is not a good thing, and how we can systematically beat it.
Wait, perfectionism is a bad thing?
So I can already hear you asking, “why is perfectionism such a bad thing?”
After all, I’m sure you’ve heard countless stories about folks like Kubrick and Fincher and Tarkovsky being perfectionists. So why shouldn’t you be one?
Well for starters, it might help to define perfectionism.
In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by “a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”
In other words, to a perfectionist, anything that’s less than perfect is unacceptable, and if they can’t meet those impossible standards, they beat themselves up about it. Plus, they worry incessantly about how others will judge them for their imperfect work, adding an extra layer of anxiety into the mix.
By that definition, those famous filmmakers don’t really fall into the category of perfectionism. They might have insanely high standards, and go to great lengths to impose those standards on their projects, but at the end of the day, they ship and hit their deadlines. They put their work out into the world, perfection be damned.
And that’s a super important distinction to make. High standards are necessary for filmmakers who want to get ahead. As a general rule of thumb, you can’t get noticed in this world with subpar content.
But realize that the line between high standards and perfectionism is extraordinarily thin. And if you’re not careful, high standards can very easily morph into perfectionist behavior rather quickly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. We’ll get back to how to spot and stop perfectionism later, but for now, let’s take a step back and talk about the havoc perfectionism can wreak in your projects and career.
Why perfectionism is so detrimental to filmmakers
Here are some of the core issues that perfectionism can cause for filmmakers (and creatives of all types).
- For starters, being a perfectionist often leads to hardcore procrastination. And procrastination, if it’s allowed to continue unabated, will ultimately prevent us from doing the work that needs to get done. And to take it one step further, if the work doesn’t get done, a productive fulfilling career, and life, can’t be built.
- Perfectionism causes us to waste time that could be much better spent. Perfectionist tendencies will push us well beyond the point of diminishing returns. We spend inordinate amounts of time on small details that ultimately no one besides us will care about. Don’t get me wrong, living up to your standards isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re creating work that’s meant to be consumed by an audience, it’s wise to spend as much of your time as possible doing work that will maximize their enjoyment of your project. In that sense, indulging in nitpicky obsessive perfectionism isn’t just a waste of time, it’s selfish.
- Perfectionism undermines your ability to collaborate with other people. When you have excessively high (or impossible) standards, you don’t just try to hold yourself to those standards. You try to hold the people you work with to them as well. And not surprisingly, this causes a ton of conflict within collaborative relationships. If you’re too much of a perfectionist, you’ll eventually find that people won’t want to collaborate with you anymore.
- When we allow our inner perfectionist to run the show, we end up unhappy and never satisfied with the work we’ve done. And that’s tragic, because filmmaking should be fun and interesting and fulfilling, even when the outcome isn’t the best. By allowing the perfectionist in your head to win, you’re taking the joy out of the process, not only for yourself, but for the people you work with.
So that, in a nutshell, is why we must be aware of when we start seeing and feeling perfectionism crop up in ourselves. If we’re not careful, it can run the show and have some pretty unfortunate consequences.
How to spot perfectionist behavior in yourself
Alright, now that we understand why perfectionism is such a bad thing, let’s starting doing something about it. But before we can get into solutions, we’ve gotta figure out if we’re dealing with perfectionism or not.
Because remember, it’s not always readily apparent that you’re a perfectionist. You can have high standards, but not be a perfectionist. That line is thin.
So here are some behaviors that will help you make that distinction. If you recognize any of these in yourself, it’s a surefire sign that you’ve got a gnarly case of perfectionism that’s holding you back.
Waiting for perfection
The first telltale sign is is that you never officially start projects because you’re waiting for the perfect resources or circumstances.
You’re waiting for the right idea, the right collaborators, the right equipment, the right location, the right amount of funding, the right cast, or any number of other factors to come together perfectly.
This behavior tends to stem from a belief that if we can’t make it perfect, it’s not worth making. And that belief generally stems from a fear of being judged and criticized. So go back and listen to the episode on fear again for help in dealing with that.
Also, before we move on, it’s worth noting that perfect resources and circumstances don’t exist. They’re a myth conjured by your mind to stop you from doing difficult, uncomfortable, uncertain work. Even the highest budget projects run into obstacle after obstacle, and imperfect circumstance after imperfect circumstance.
Thinking in “all or nothing” terms
Another sign that you might be a perfectionist is that you think in “all or nothing” terms.
This is when you start telling yourself the project you’re working on HAS to be successful in some big concrete way, or else it’s a total failure. When there’s no middle ground between those two extremes, that’s “all or nothing” thinking.
When you start thinking like this, it’s easy to get into some perfectionist thought patterns and behaviors because it feels like everything in your life—your identity, your financial success, the respect of your friends, your status in society—is riding on the project being perfect.
When a project produces thoughts and feelings like this, it’s a pretty clear cut sign that perfectionism is on its way.
Procrastinating and missing deadlines
Perhaps the most obvious sign of perfectionism is when you find consistently procrastinating and missing deadlines.
This is especially true for the people who’ve been working on the same script or who have been in post on the same feature for 5 straight years. Oftentimes, this is just another symptom of thinking in “all or nothing” terms.
You’re never satisfied with the work of your collaborators
Another sign that you’re a perfectionist, is when the work of your peers and collaborators never satisfies you. You find yourself delegating less, criticizing more, and taking on a bigger and bigger workload because you don’t think anyone else can get it right.
Needless to say, not only is this a terrible move for your sanity and mental health, but it’s perhaps one of the best ways to alienate the people on your team and lose collaborative friendships.
Trustworthy people tell you your work is good, but you don’t believe it
Lastly, one of the most telltale signs that you’ve got a gnarly case of perfectionism is when other people think your work is good, but you constantly beat yourself up over how bad you think it is.
Don’t get me wrong, your family and friends will almost always tell you your work is good because they’re trying to be nice, but if other filmmakers are telling you it’s good, but you’re still beating yourself up about it, chances are you’re a perfectionist.