Overcoming Perfectionism

November 1, 2020 • ☕️ 3 min read

I’ve recently taken Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course. One of the main paradigm shifts that Tiago was trying to instil in us is the importance of becoming creators. The nature of knowledge work is changing to demand more and more creativity from us. I see this as a positive change, but it also comes with the challenges of adapting and learning new skills.

I love the perspective that my creative process is an area of mastery that I can take concrete steps to improve. This goes against everything I thought about creativity, in particular the belief that either you’re born creative or you’re not.

In fact, this blog is my attempt to work on these skills. It’s the perfect sandbox for unearthing the unhelpful assumptions and habits getting in the way of creating more.

And already I’ve discovered a big stumbling block: perfectionism. Perfectionism is of course a bit of a chameleon, it shows up in different ways from person to person. The particular flavour of perfectionism I’m coming up against is my ability to converge.

What do I mean by this? Well, the way that creativity works is that it’s constantly shifting from 2 modes. Divergence and convergence.

From Tiago’s article on this topic:

In divergence, you are consuming diverse sources of information, investigating new approaches and ways of thinking, and experimenting with different solutions. The number of things you are looking at and tracking is increasing – the scope of your work is diverging from an initial starting point.

In convergence, you are discarding sources of information that aren’t relevant, eliminating options for how to do things, and producing tangible deliverables that can be shared with others – the scope of your work is converging toward an end point.

Most of us don’t have any trouble with divergence. It is fun to swim in the sea of ideas. To browse the Internet, to read books, to be inspired by the content that we consume and revel in the possibilities of all that we could create.

Convergence is a different story. It’s a painful process.

As humans, we experience an asymmetry where we feel much more pain at losing something than we feel joy at gaining that exact same thing.

This doesn’t just apply to material objects but also to ideas. I’ve gone out into the big bad world wide web, and collected ideas. They are interesting, they are cues that spark all sort of insights in my head.

But these insights are wide ranging and disparate. I cannot put them all into one blog post. Knowledge is interconnected in the most wonderful and unexpected ways. But if I were to follow all those tantalising trails I would never get anything published.

So I have to let go. I have to let go of the possibilities. And again this hurts. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone took brain scans of a creator in convergence mode and found the centres for physical pain lighting up.

I’m realising how much of the creative process comes down to hacks and tricks to get us past the pain of converging.

There are many creative ways of doing this and the one I’m using for this blog is setting a schedule for myself that I will publish something every Sunday no matter what.

Of course I have other things to do on a Sunday. So on top of the schedule I commit to doing it within 2 hours. I use this constraint to push forward. The pain of dropping my ideas becomes slightly less painful than the pain of not meeting my deadline.

These constraints are one of the weapons in arsenal for my battle against perfectionism. And I love them because they bring mindfulness into my emotional state.

What makes it so hard to drop ideas? Why do I feel so uncomfortable leaving an idea half explored? Could it be that I am trying to maintain the image of myself as someone knowledgeable and intelligent?

Now that’s an interesting line of thought to explore. Because it leads to root causes. I can find all the hacks and trips but until I get to root causes they’re at best band aid solutions.

But that’s an exploration for another day.