Author Topic: Coping with perfectionism  (Read 1215 times)

Offline Matthew H.

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Coping with perfectionism
« on: October 09, 2023, 09:49:26 AM »
… I'll confess, this is a slightly tricky topic for me. I’m a recovering perfectionist (although, some days, I wonder if I’m still closer to the latter than the former). I’d also love to become a professional calligrapher some day. Perhaps my greatest worry about making that leap, though, is knowing when and how far to reign in my perfectionistic tendencies.

As much as I'd like to pretend otherwise, the precision calligraphy requires is one of the things I enjoy most about it. (Well, maybe not on those days when it’s all going wrong!) But I'm mindful that professional calligraphy involves more than just writing (hopefully ;D) beautiful letters, but also things like handing in work on time and working within a budget.

And so I wondered – do you struggle with perfectionism, and if so, how do you cope with it? What do you consider realistic to aim for in your work? If you were, say, three-quarters through a long piece of prose when – horror! – you included a bad space or a shaky stroke, would you begin again? What would be your threshold for rewriting something shorter like a place card?

More than anything, I think I’m just hoping to understand what’s realistic and, maybe more importantly, what’s sensible.

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #1 on: October 09, 2023, 11:30:07 AM »

As much as I'd like to pretend otherwise, the precision calligraphy requires is one of the things I enjoy most about it. (Well, maybe not on those days when it’s all going wrong!)

I could not agree more! ;) I would waiver a large percentage of calligraphers are perfectionists. I liken it to golfers - you are always striving to make the next stroke perfect. Otherwise, what is the point. It reminds me of Pam’s Meemaw in the Office. Pam says, “Nobody’s perfect.” And Meemaw says, “Well, I wouldn’t care to live if I thought that.”  ;D

One of my least favorite quotes is “done is better than perfect.” Is it though? Because I don’t think it is.

It is only in the past decade humans have decided perfect means unattainable. I feel like this whole ‘perfect isn’t good’ movement stemmed from a false sense of humility. The feeling of “not being good enough” is somehow tied into creating “perfect” work. So if nobody is perfect, we are all good. While there is no perfect person, perfect to me, in an assessment of art or pizza, or any given experience, is a subjective measure.

Perfect by definition can be quantified in regard to calligraphy. Perfect: to be without flaw, corresponding to an ideal standard, faithfully reproducing an original. That is not only quantifiable, but doable. Even if it is only perfect to the person doing the assessment! What is perfect to me may not be to you and vice versa.

I don’t think perfectionism is a flaw. Perhaps it harks back to my days as an HR Specialist when in interviews I would ask what someone’s weaknesses were and the stock answer is ‘I’m a perfectionist.’ My response was always, ‘tell me how that is a weakness’ to which I would get the deer in the headlights look.

I realize the issue is when it goes too far. And I am guilty of that - once having written a capital M over 500 times until I felt it was just right. That is past perfectionism to obsession.

Anyway, to answer your question, yes, I do struggle with perfectionism, but once you start doing calligraphy for money, it is a different mind set than while practicing or even doing a piece for your own satisfaction. Time is money and so are supplies. So you learn to let go of the small imperfections - even to embrace them (well that one takes some time). But part of letting go is progressing forward because you give yourself the freedom to make a mistake or less than perfect letters and energetically that shifts something.

There are ways to make corrections in a long piece but if I have done something and my eye is immediately drawn to it, I will do it over. I never made corrections on envelopes, I just did them over - but shaky strokes and bad spacing didn’t justify a redo. Those you have to let go. The exception were envelopes that had lines that crammed up against the right margin with big gaps on the left or something similar. For the most part, the person receiving the envelope will be so enamored by the calligraphy, they won’t see what you do.

A placecard would deserve a rewrite from me if a letter lost its form or if I ran to the edge on the right with a huge gap on the left. Some leeway was allowable. As you develop experience, this happens less and less. Keep in mind, there will be jobs where you only have 2 or 3 extras so mistakes aren’t an option. You learn to let go of perfection and settle for acceptable in those cases.

From one perfectionist to another - don’t wait until you think your work is perfect to start taking jobs. Otherwise, you will never do it. But take an honest look at your work and assess where your skill is. You don’t have to be John Stevens (whose work I consider the very definition of perfect)  to start taking on jobs.  :-*
« Last Edit: October 09, 2023, 11:34:49 AM by Erica McPhee »
Warm Regards,
Erica
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Offline brose

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #2 on: October 09, 2023, 08:08:27 PM »
Acknowledging the goal or purpose is a key thing to accept what you are doing or have done.
If the goal is perfection, look at what some of the pros do for a perfect outcome. Many iterations of layout planning and utilizing all reasonable tools at hand to achieve it, stroke drills, lightboxes, projectors, etc. I am relatively new to calligraphy, but Shiela Waters "Foundations of Calligraphy" shows some iterations of planning a project. It gave me an appreciation for the hours and thought and effort that went in on the back end, that no one will see, to get to a really nice final product. If you do not make multiple iterations considering all aspects; Why would you expect it to be perfect without all that work?
If the goal is perfection, barring all else, then digitize your one off perfect lettering and ligatures (oversimplifying. Or better yet, make a font), Printers make perfect replications, so the challenge becomes layout design.
Most of my projects are taken in the spirit of: If I am not putting in that back end work: Why would I expect perfection? My overriding motivation and goal is the relaxing meditative process. (I've done this uncial 'O' countless times. If I take it for granted and don't take the 5+ sec focusing on it THIS time, should I be surprised if it is a bit off?)
The joy of doing this as a hobby is if I find something inexplicably interesting, I will spend the time to perfect it. If not interesting, its time to move on for a while, if not permanently.
Mental state is important, some days I don't work on an in progress project if I'm not in a calm place physically and mentally.
If you do make a mistake, it is a learning opportunity to get better for the next time. Try to correct it. If you find it ruined trying to correct it, now you know a little more about what you can and cannot correct to make the next time go smoother.
Keep the long game in mind, the goal is a process, not a one off thing. As the process gets better, perfection gets closer. If you make a mistake, it is time lost, but you can make another, and that is more time for the meditative practice (my goal).
@Erica McPhee There is an odd juxtaposition of art and the perfect lettering to me. I am in the camp of unnecessarily striving for perfection and some of the modern scripts make me very uncomfortable. Good point on the differing level of mistakes and MISTAKES. I will make a mistake that unnecessarily bothers me and point it out to someone else and they don't even notice it. I am purposefully keeping calligraphy as a hobby, mad respect to you pros.

Offline Mary_M

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #3 on: October 10, 2023, 12:11:49 PM »
I’m a hobbyist calligrapher but absolutely have struggles with perfectionism. I’ve only taken one class, Engrosser’s Script, with David Grimes. He always emphasized that there’s no such thing as perfection in calligraphy. If we commented on someone else’s work saying “It’s perfect!” He would kindly remind us not to use that word in the context of calligraphy. So now I try not to use the word.
I am quite critical of my own work even though it only matters to me. We all have different levels of what we think of as good work. How we handle our mistakes and failures is personal. You’ll learn what’s acceptable for you.
 It’s nice to hang on to a few beginner samples so that as you improve you can see how far you’ve come. It’s also nice to throw “garbage” in the recycling bin and start again.

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #4 on: October 10, 2023, 03:13:00 PM »
Great advice Mary!

Also, I absolutely disagree with David on this. (And many others.) I have a dear mentor who always said, “we don’t do perfect in this class” to which my thought was, “speak for yourself.”  ;D By that, I’m not saying my work was perfect, but I absolutely disagree that there is no perfection in calligraphy (as noted in my post above). That is the exact false modesty I am talking about. David has created some pretty perfect calligraphy (by the definition I posted above and by the majority of standards) and I hope he would recognize it as such. It’s OK to say sometimes - hey that’s a perfect letter!  Or perhaps it is really about setting an unattainable standard. “The don’t try to be perfect as you’ll never get there” argument. But I think it’s disheartening and discouraging. I just see it differently I guess.

I’ve only taken one class, Engrosser’s Script, with David Grimes. He always emphasized that there’s no such thing as perfection in calligraphy. If we commented on someone else’s work saying “It’s perfect!” He would kindly remind us not to use that word in the context of calligraphy. So now I try not to use the word.
Warm Regards,
Erica
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Offline Mary_M

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #5 on: October 11, 2023, 02:45:02 PM »
@Erica McPhee I’m glad you said that. I saw a lot of work in the class that looked perfect to me. Maybe it’s because there are students of all levels in the classes and he doesn’t want beginners to get discouraged. Some of the people didn’t need the class at all, they were already so skilled. I usually didn’t know what to critique so stayed silent.

Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #6 on: October 11, 2023, 05:17:43 PM »
Thank you so much for your replies. It’s been incredibly helpful, reading both your perspectives on and advice for dealing with perfectionism.

I'm sorry for how long it's taken me to write even this short message – it's been quite a strange week! Fingers crossed, I should be able to reply properly tomorrow.

Thanks again, everyone.

Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #7 on: October 13, 2023, 04:19:42 PM »
Sorry I wasn't able to reply yesterday as I'd hoped. :-[

@Erica McPhee What you said was a huge help and gave me lots to think about. Thank you so much. I’d been concerned I was a bit of a hopeless case, enjoying the precision of calligraphy rather than its expressive side – not that they’re mutually exclusive, of course!

I think I'd always carried around the idea that calligraphy was defined by how perfect it was. But thinking about it, I realise there must be more to calligraphy than that, because the closer it moves to perfection, the easier it is to supplant it with typography, which will always produce the most perfect letters. I wouldn't want that sort of thinking to allow me to get away with sloppiness, but I guess it gives me a way to accept a shaky stroke here or there.

I suppose my underlying reason for asking about all of this is because, when it comes to pushing past perfectionism into obsession… well, I have form in that regard, I’m afraid. I’ve pushed myself too far in the past in other areas, even to the extent of damaging my health. It’s seeing that pattern that makes me want to do things differently with calligraphy. The trouble is, I want to have my cake and eat it! For my health’s sake, I want to be sensible – but in my heart of hearts, I’d love for my work to be perfect, too.

In The Artist’s Way, I think Julia Cameron talks about perfectionism as a getting stuck instead of a moving forward, and I can certainly see that aspect of it in me. As my calligraphy teacher can (unfortunately) attest, my progress has been painfully slow at times because I’ve been caught up in trying to get a certain letter just so, or rewriting a piece of work until it’s supposedly flawless. (Though in my case, of course, it never is. :-\) But then I hope that that kind of intensive work has perhaps helped other elements to come together more quickly. Maybe that's the reason I find it difficult to renounce my perfectionism completely – I can see its benefits, even when they've come at a cost. Fortunately, I have the most wonderful teacher I could ask for, and she’s been incredibly helpful in nudging me when it’s time to move on and not get stuck at a point of diminishing returns.

I think part of my concern around professional work is nerves-induced errors, especially with an approaching deadline and limited supplies. I wish I could tell you that my final pieces always turn out better than the practice attempts! It was really helpful to read which mistakes you feel would justify a rewrite and which would be best overlooked.

I completely agree about John Stevens's work. I find myself struggling for words each time: “How did he…? I mean, how is it possible to…? But how could anyone…?!” It's just astonishing!

@brose Oh, the uncial O – I wouldn’t like to count how many sheets of A3 paper I’ve filled trying to get that letter correct! But I have to admit, I find it a really enjoyable process. And I know what you mean about focus. It’s amazing how I can make a complete mess in less time than it takes to think, “Hmm, I wonder what I’ll have for dinner?”

I confess, I have a terrible habit when it comes to planning for projects – turning that into a form of procrastination. Each time I think about confronting the final piece of work (and the nerves that’ll come along for the ride), I end up thinking, “Well, maybe a bit more work on such-and-such wouldn’t do any harm.” Months later…!

@Mary_M I wish I’d remembered to hold on to my very first practice sheets. Although, funnily enough, I was recently going through some work from a year ago – it was shudder-inducing!

If I’m unhappy with a letter or word I've written, I usually leave it alone and carry on. But I can always tell if I’m really appalled by something I’ve done because it’s usually been struck through in disgust!

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #8 on: October 13, 2023, 11:23:08 PM »
So much to think about. Doing calligraphy for work requires a cost/benefit approach in terms of letting go of minor things. I tend to be harder on my personal work than piece meal work like envelopes and/or placecards (large pieces are different altogether and terrify me - Haha).

My best advice for when you find yourself crossing the line to obsession - walk away. Take a break. Do something else. Save it for tomorrow or later in the day. When you go back to it, it will look better! And you’ll ask yourself - why did I think that wasn’t good? (Not the same as looking at past work while you are improving/learning a new hand.)

Lastly, I often do what I call “procrasti-working.” I work on something else that needed to get done anyway while I’m postponing the inevitable.  :) That way at least something gets done and it usually opens up the flow so I can tackle the project that intimidated me.
Warm Regards,
Erica
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Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #9 on: October 14, 2023, 02:42:12 PM »
Thanks, Erica – that helps a lot. I really like the idea of procrasti-working.

As I cross that line into obsession, I'm vaguely aware of a sort of "Uh oh, this isn't going to end well" feeling, and yet there's this horrible pull at the same time. It feels like… I'm not sure. Getting too close to a black hole? (I fear it may be obvious I'm not an astrophysicist…!) I'll try doubly hard to walk away next time. I've definitely noticed how even the worst mistakes look at least a bit better the following morning. Still rubbish, but enough that the paper won't have to be fed to the shredder before it's recycled! ;)

Offline Mary_M

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #10 on: October 15, 2023, 11:03:01 AM »
@Matthew H. - I really like “Still rubbish” and might adopt it as my motto 😁

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #11 on: October 15, 2023, 02:13:07 PM »
Saw this quote today and thought of you @Matthew H. ! Didn’t have time to get to my ink but did this on ProCreate.  :D
Warm Regards,
Erica
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Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #12 on: October 16, 2023, 03:19:48 PM »
Oh, wow! Thank you so much for this, @Erica McPhee. I hadn't come across the quote before – I love its sentiment. Definitely one for me to take to heart!

Offline Mark T

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #13 on: October 16, 2023, 07:01:26 PM »
Most days I go looking for quotes to save for when my writing is good enough to frame, and I fell across Salvador Dali.
I hope you don't mind an intrusion, but after seeing the above quote, I thought I would jump in and out with a quote and a song lyric for you.

“Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.” ― Salvador Dali.

and also a couple of lines from one of the worlds finest ever to grace a stage with a microphone and a paper with a pen -

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”
― Leonard Cohen
Laughter is definitely the best medicine, but Wolves destroying WBA runs laughter close, and the Yankees winning the World Series is ................ laughter is the best medicine, remember?

Offline Matthew H.

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Re: Coping with perfectionism
« Reply #14 on: October 17, 2023, 03:48:58 PM »
@Mark T I'm really grateful to you for sharing these – thank you.