How creativity helped me overcome perfectionism
Ten years ago, my life changed unexpectedly. I was working in a place I loved, with people I thought highly of, making great things happen.
But I felt flat.
My body knew something was up faster than I could work out what it was. I began experiencing panic attacks, couldn't sleep and couldn't do simple tasks like online shopping without feeling overwhelmed.
On the outside, my life seemed pretty perfect - a dream job, great friends, and a lovely place to live. And it wasn’t as if I wasn’t enjoying it, at least on the surface. But somewhere along the line, the obsession with making my life as perfect as possible had taken over.
Becoming a perfectionist can creep up on you, and you might not even realise it's happening. You start by setting high standards for yourself, but soon you’re avoiding doing or creating anything new for fear of failure and constantly being hard on yourself. Until it got really bad, I hadn’t noticed the background level of anxiety I felt every day, just trying to maintain all the plates I had spinning.
So, I first had to stop to work out how to move forward. I cobbled together a bit of holiday, time off in lieu and unpaid leave and took a whole month off work.
During my time off, I asked friends, family and colleagues to set me a different creative challenge each day. It could be whatever creativity meant to them, so as long as I had the resources to do it, I would.
The responses were fascinating and so varied. There were cooking recipes from across the world, growing things, writing, singing, making music, dancing, stretching, and exploring, all of which allowed me to try something new.
As I completed a daily creative challenge over the month, I felt a tiny part of myself open back up each day. Doing something new brightened my day and gave me a fresh perspective. I stopped feeling that background level of anxiety.
I had thought it was essential to do everything perfectly, and I had to excel at something to bother doing it. But one small creative challenge a day taught me that wasn't the case. I felt happier and more alive just by giving something a go.
Failing was the key to my creativity all along.
Working in the arts, I had often been told that creativity was something that belonged to a magical group of people we call 'creatives', but this experiment confirmed the feeling I had all along. We are all creative. It's in all of us and has been since we were born. It’s only as we grow up that we start to unlearn it.
You would never tell a 2-year-old that they’re not particularly talented at painting, so they should stop. Or that a 5-year-old’s dance skills are inadequate. Or a 10-year-old’s writing isn’t good enough to create stories. So why do we tell ourselves as adults that being good at something artistic is so important?
Trying to be good at something is often the opposite of being creative. It stops us from playing or trying something out. It shuts down possibilities. Many people want to train, to become skilled in an artistic pursuit, or even to have it as a job. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t do it. Interestingly when we interviewed several people who had a creative hobby, they said they would never want to do it professionally because the pressure would take away their enjoyment.
My favourite dictionary definition of creativity is ‘the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules and patterns and make new ones’. So when we think about calling some people creative and others not, it speaks to more than who is handy with a paintbrush. It says some people can break the rules and other people can’t; some people can make the rules, and others can’t.
To me, that is what is vital about creativity. It’s not a "nice to have". It’s a fundamental part of who we are. It allows us to imagine new futures and dream up a different world. And I don’t know about you, but right now, I think that’s what we need more of. New people making up the rules, new ideas coming out of communities, institutions, organisations.
Living in the UK sometimes feels like the living definition of Einstein’s (or whoever it's currently accredited to) famous quote, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’ And that’s partly because we’re letting the same old people make the rules.
Just imagine what the world might look like if more people had space for their creativity, had more opportunities to share it with the people around them, and if others valued their ideas equally. Might the world be kinder, more innovative, less relentless, more connected, a nicer place to be?
I am not claiming to have all the answers. But I’m interested in exploring the possibilities. Since allowing myself to be a little more creative every day, I have more patience, wonder, and joy in my life. And right now, particularly at this time of year, life can feel so relentless and challenging. So even a little window of something different helps.
We are only a week away from the end of The January Challenge this year. However, there is still plenty of fun, free daily creative challenges that you can take part in to rest, recover and engage even more thoroughly with your communities. Perhaps your creativity could affect change and advance your organisation’s mission.
I hope if we start here with something little every day, we might all be able to give ourselves a break from the relentlessness. To have a moment for ourselves. And we might just start to see a different world emerging, if only from our own perspectives.
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