One of the most common afflictions for the creative type is the fear of failure. It can be debilitating and destructive, and it manifests itself in many ways. But what exactly is this fear? Why do we have it? Why is it so much more pronounced with creative types? And most importantly, how does one overcome it? I have pondered these questions, and believe I can illustrate the issue through a short story. I call it The Traffic Cop and the Archaeologist.

The Traffic Cop and the Archaeologist

The composer sits expectantly in front of his blank staff paper, pencil in hand, poised to write the first note. An idea flashes into his mind, almost too quickly for him to transcribe it. Instinctively, the pencil moves toward the page. The lead almost contacts the paper, but an invisible wall halts the pencil a mere split-second before.

“Stop!”, a mental voice screams. “That’s garbage!”

The composer is bewildered. He listens to the idea again. It is garbage. He crumples it up and disposes of it in the blast furnace of his mind. He starts again, this time with a different idea.

“That’s garbage, too. Those chords are way too conservative. Make it more dissonant.” The composer does so.

“There you go. Sort of. It sounds more modern, at least.”

The composer has, for the time being, pleased his inner traffic cop. As he continues the project, however, he struggles at every stage. He fights the process, rather than participating in it, the ever-present traffic cop belittling him and critiquing his style, technique, and even the topic behind the music. After months of struggle, the composer gives up on the piece. He throws it away, never to return to it. He perhaps never even returns to writing music. What should have brought pleasure and enjoyment has brought only pain and disdain.

In another scene, an archaeologist digs in the desert. The coarse sand has squirmed, grain by grain, into his boots. The monotony of the desert deprives his senses of anything entertaining or inspiring. The searing sun wears away at his spirit, and the dehydration parches his skin. He has just arrived at the spot where he wishes to dig. Taking his shovel, he sticks it into the ground, heaves a great pile of sand, and casts it aside, leaving a gaping hole in the ground.

There is nothing in it. The archaeologist is frustrated. “Nothing here, I guess.” He digs some more, finding a small piece of…something? He holds it up to the sunlight.

“It’s just a piece of clay with random-looking scratches on it.”

He casts this aside, just like the sand from before. He continues digging, this time with greater frustration. His frustration is so great, in fact, that he swings the shovel slightly too hard, hitting something else and shattering it. He picks up several broken pieces.

“These just look like a jumble. The markings on them look fragmented and make no sense. They’re not even complete. They have no beauty in them.”

He casts aside these pieces as well. Now boiling with frustration, he drops his shovel and storms away, never to dig again.

What does this mean?

If any of us have experience digging for fossils or ancient artifacts (or if we watch the Discovery channel), the second story will sound utterly ridiculous. What archaeologist or paleontologist would give up like this? Which one of these professionals, in their right mind, would find a small piece of something, and casually dismiss it simply because it did not appear complete?

Neither of them, of course. And yet, this is exactly what an artist’s “inner traffic cop” does. This is what perfectionism does. This is its folly, and its danger. It exists because an artist knows what great art looks like. He wants to create something like it. He sees the result in his mind, and does not wish to waste time not getting the result.

What the result will not show, however, is the process through which it was found. That process is frequently met with much disorganization, confusion, and even pain. As the archaeologist must dig through much sand to find the clay pieces, the artist must often create much nonsense to find the beauty. As the archaeologist must find many disconnected clay pieces before putting them together into a beautiful ancient vase, the artist may need to find many disconnected ideas before bringing them together, into a coherent whole. After all, every novel is made up of sentences, every painting is made up of individual brushstrokes, every melody is made up of small motives, and every symphony is made up of individual melodies. The traffic cop sees what the disconnected fragment is. The archaeologist sees what it could become.

Like the disconnected clay pieces, the creative process and the initial ideas it produces are often delicate. They are easily disturbed and even shattered by more forceful aspects of our personalities, and perfectionism is often one of the most forceful aspects of an artist’s personality. It is the proverbial “bull in the china closet.”

This begs the question: why can one not compose a memorable melody, write a great story, or paint a beautiful picture, in a single try? Why must we “dig” for our ideas?

I believe we have to dig for ideas because the imagination is inherently disorganized. Since it is constantly influenced by data it receives from the outer world, and is constantly shifting its inner world based on it, the ideas are “buried” underneath much mental clutter. This aspect of the creative process may be compared to finding a specific set of compatible sentences amid piles of recently-returned library books.

Is perfectionism ever good?

Does perfectionism have its place? I believe so. The creative process is like an unmapped jungle. It has no roads, bridges, or other infrastructure. The only way to traverse it is for curious explorers to travel it. This simple curiosity is the “method” by which the grammar of each artistic language was developed. One of the first artists asked, “What color will result if I mix this blue with that green?” A composer, “What will it sound like if I combine the cellos with a solo horn?” A novelist, “What if I write this surprise ending?” (Ironically, without this risk-taking exploration, no art would exist for the traffic cop to criticize.)

Can a traffic cop direct a jungle? Of course not. This is the realm of the archaeologist. It is the place where one asks questions, digs in the dirt, and explores. In this way, the creative process is often chaotic and leaves quite a mess. By itself, it cannot guarantee that a comprehensible order is built. It cannot guarantee that an audience will understand what is being presented. It cannot guarantee that the artist will connect with others through his work. The initial results of its efforts are often jumbled, incoherent, or incomplete. The process is characterized by much questioning. “I wonder what happens if I do this? What happens if I go there? I think I’ll observe this – ooh, shiny!” This process is the very lifeblood of creativity.

However, imagine attempting to direct traffic this way. The result would be total pandemonium. Can an archaeologist dig in the middle of a busy city street? For the sake of the traffic, I would hope not. So, who guides the creative process once its initial stages are complete? Who takes over once all of the individual pieces are found? Who ensures that the audience will understand what has been created? The traffic cop. He guides the cars to their destinations. He ensures that signs are clear. He guarantees that no one gets lost. He is the one who permits understanding between the artist and his audience.

I have found it helpful to think of it in this way: as an archaeologist digs up more pieces, he begins to find patterns within them that suggest how they ought to connect to one another. As he connects them, a coherent vase, urn, or tablet begins to form. In a sense, the finished product almost builds itself.

It is at this point, once all of the essential pieces have been placed, that the traffic cop is most useful. He identifies the cracks in the finished product and tells the archaeologist how to glue them together. He ensures that the vase does not simply crumble as soon as it is removed from the dig site. He ensures that the finished product is comprehensible to an audience. To a composer, he might say, “This transition is clunky.” To an artist, “This color isn’t obvious enough; it’s almost invisible in this bright light.” To a novelist, “This character’s decision doesn’t seem realistic.” And then, it falls back to the archaeologist to apply the remedies: smoothing out the musical transitions, darkening the paint colors slightly, or revisiting a character’s odd decision.

And so, the traffic cop can only direct existing traffic, but cannot create it. The archaeologist maps the area, builds the cars, and paves the roads, and the traffic cop directs them smoothly. In this way, the finished product and the creative process itself are actually improved. The traffic cop has his uses, but he is not meant to dig for fossils. The archaeologist has his uses as well, as long as he does not attempt to direct traffic. As long as they are carefully separated, perfectionism and creativity need not be enemies. In fact, their relationship is downright symbiotic.

How should we, then, create?

For me, and for my students, I have discovered that a shift in attitude is necessary to put perfectionism in its proper place. Rather than thinking, “I must create something,” (even though we must), I have found it helpful to think, “I will explore something.” As mentioned in the previous article, the key to creativity appears to be curiosity. Curiosity is incompatible with perfectionism. An artist cannot cultivate both at the same time. One cannot simultaneously say, “I wonder what this piece of pottery connects to?”, and, “This piece of pottery is useless”. Rather than asking ourselves, “Is this good enough?”, let us ask ourselves, “I wonder what I can do with this?”

Perfectionism is quite dangerous at this point in the process, when many ideas are too fragile and unformed. We must allow ourselves to see what the next few notes suggest, what the resulting hues from our paintbrushes will be, or what a given character’s decision will lead to down the road. After all, is there any penalty for playing a sour note? Is there any real consequence for painting an unbeautiful color combination? Will anything terrible result if we write an imperfect word? Not at all. In fact, one must be willing to dig through the dirt to find the gold.

Late in the process, when an idea is more fully formed and, therefore, less easily disturbed, perfectionism is incredibly helpful. It allows an artist to assess a project objectively, with regard to how it will be perceived by an audience. (And I believe that our inner traffic cop is a manifestation of how we imagine our audience will react.) It helps the artist to better communicate with, to connect with, the audience. Over time, this perfectionism also allows the artist to improve his craft.   

Therefore, let us listen to the traffic cop, but only once the infrastructure is built. Let us explore with the archaeologist, but without presenting unfinished or chaotic work to our audiences. Let us keep each one in his proper place, so that we may create art that both deeply expresses and immediately connects.

For Discussion

  1. Has perfectionism posed a problem for you? How?
  2. Has an audience ever reacted in a way that you didn’t expect? Put another way: has your inner traffic cop ever turned out to have been wrong?
  3. How would you characterize the relationship between your inner traffic cop and your inner archaeologist?