Being unhappy with your creative work

I think this is something anyone who does creative stuff can relate to: not being happy or content with your work.

In order for you to hate the work you create – whether it’s artwork, writing, music, anything – you have to actually create it first. And behind that process there are a lot of ugly obstacles and challenges.

You’ll be working away at something and then realize that you don’t have the right color, or you can’t find the exact right words, or the way the instrument is playing the sounds is just slightly off. Sometimes this means we give-up, we stop. We see the end of the line and it’s not very pretty, the job can’t be done.

But occasionally (and hopefully more often than not), we try to keep pressing forward anyway, filling the holes and stitching the broken pieces of our work with stuff that isn’t all that great. We do this because we know the value of creating.

If we weren’t to finish a piece then our ideas, our creativity itself, would have nowhere to go. So we write even when the story seems to not be flowing, and we paint even when we don’t have exactly the right color, and we draw and dance and play our music as best we can.

We know about all of these bits and pieces that had to be somewhat glued together though, and being a part of that process of creating something that we know isn’t as perfect as it should be really weighs heavily on us. Even if those who read, or watch, or taste, or feel, or experience our work don’t notice all of the mismatched gluing and stitching and covering-up we’ve had to do. We still feel as though the work just isn’t all that grand.

But why do we beat ourselves up over this type of stuff almost every single time? Constantly pursuing the art of doing better work is motivating, it keeps us moving, but it’s certainly not fair, both to ourselves and to our audience.

When I started writing this article yesterday I think I wrote and re-wrote the intro about a dozen times. I just couldn’t find anything that could capture the essence of what it was I’m trying to say in an elegant way. And for a writer: that means certain failure.

However, I knew that I had to get this article out, that I had to share my thoughts and insights. Not only for you, or anyone else who may read this someday in the future, but for myself, as a reminder.

So I wrote anyway. And I’m really, really, really, unhappy with the intro still. I know it could be much better, much more captivating or concise or clear. But the funny thing is: this doesn’t really need to be perfect for anyone. What is perfect anyway? Some vague, entirely subjective, term we assign to dreams and fantasies.

No, this isn’t my best work, it’s far from it, but it accomplishes a task I set out to do: to get the thoughts out. If I had spent my time pursuing some type of perfection on the intro, odds are this article never would have been written.

Not finishing is worse than imperfection.

So I wrote anyway. And maybe you can relate: maybe you started on a project and towards the end realized it wasn’t going to be everything you hoped it would be, but you said “fuck it” and finished anyway.

And then what happened?

You beat yourself up over it, right? But to your readers, or fans, or audience, or customers, did they point out all the flaws? No, likely not. Why? Because they didn’t see all of the mistakes you made as you were working on it, all they have to go by is the final product.

The final product isn’t going to be something for everyone, of course. There will always be haters who simply don’t like what it is you make. But for those who really matter, for the people who have been watching your portfolio grow, who have helped teach you or guide you, who have been there to buy your work or hear your music or read your words, what matters to them is that the work exists at all.

It’s better to make, and keep making, chasing that ideal perfection constantly, but remember that if you’re not actually finishing things, you’re chasing a ghost.

There’s another aspect to this though that I really want to touch on before sending you on your way, back to work.

It’s the notion that: if you look back at all of your past work (for me it’s the years of design, the years of writing here on Creative Something, all of that stuff), and if you look at that stuff how much of it can you say you feel really good about?

If you’re anything like most creatives you’re going to hate a lot of what you’ve created in the past.

But you dislike the past work not because of the things you had to glue together to make them work. No, the reason we often dislike our past work – why we can look at something we wrote or drew or created a year ago – is because with every work you end up creating you are getting better. Little by little you’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

And that’s the real value you get from finishing something, even if it doesn’t feel perfect or ideal. When you finish it you can look back and say: “Here’s where this messed up, what can I do next time to avoid that?”

A way to ensure you keep working – that you keep producing, keep finishing – is to simply keep challenging yourself.

To quote the brilliant illustrator and designer Frank Chimero in a recent interview:

“Doing the work makes you better, so of course you’ll be dissatisfied with what you’ve already done. You’re better! Any creative pursuit is like solving an endless puzzle. You don’t know where to start because there are no edges. So, you start with the two things in front of you that fit together, and then build off of it. And no edges means no obvious stopping point. Any time you step back to look at what you’ve done, it’s an intermediate step. When you’re ‘done’ is a completely arbitrary choice… So, does it make sense to have your criteria for success be something you can never reach? I don’t think so…[flip] contentedness on it’s head; it becomes less about the work you’ve done in the past and more about the opportunity and ability to do the things you want to do in the future.”