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“Forget about perfect. Be creative. What looks beautiful to you?”

My creative artist friend’s words stopped me short as I swirled my paintbrush in a plastic red cup of murky water. We were halfway through a class at one of those paint and sip studios. She was having a great time while I found myself dreading the rest of the evening. Instead of having fun I was caught up in trying to recreate the exact brushstrokes of the instructor. Why couldn’t I paint a perfect just like hers? I couldn’t figure out how to mix the right shade of color, the exact angle of the brush, the right placement on the canvas. I felt the opposite of perfect: very imperfect.

We almost always imperfect if perfection is the goal. Especially when we find ourselves paint-splattered and frustrated, unable to execute a perfect painting. That’s why the invitation to forget perfect and create something beautiful surprised me.

Releasing perfection fosters creativity.

What looks beautiful to me? I had to stop and think for a minute. The color turquoise compliments burnt orange in such a pleasing way so I changed the colors and added an extra tree in a spot that looked a little bare.

Without instruction or permission! The opposite of perfect is creative!

A little thrill ran down my spine and the movement seemed to shake free a shroud of resistance clouding my ability to participate in the creative process. 

Shifting my mentality from perfect to creative.

Recognize perfection and reframe creativity:

1) I can’t exactly recreate the painting stroke for stroke.

2) I don’t have to exactly recreate the painting. (mind blown, I know)

What I mistook for lack of perfection was actually my inability to imitate. Plagiarism, when someone attempts to make a perfect replica of someone else’s art, does not require creativity at all. There is a reason making perfect copies is close to impossible as well a frustrating; that’s what copiers are for, not people.

Picture of copy machine

Photo cred: Joshua Fuller

I started again, attempting to be creative instead of a copier.

At the moment I touched the canvas I also sneezed, slashing a jagged stroke across the new tree.

I whined to my friend, “I ruined it!  I knew I couldn’t do it right!” (How quickly my subconscious latched onto confirmation bias! Do your mistakes whisper unkindly to you, too?)

My friend calmly smiled and patted my arm saying, “You literally can’t ruin a painting. Just wait a minute and you can paint over it.”

Another revelation: I am not doomed by my imperfections. 

When you shift to creativity there is space to grow and change because of mistakes, not in spite of them. The difference is subtle, but life changing. Mistakes no longer are proof of our imperfection, they are simply opportunities for creativity. How can I make something beautiful from this mess?

In which I embarrass myself in public: an example of imperfect.

I recently went to a book signing where evidently everyone else got the message to not give any spoilers about the book. (Why would you attend a book signing to meet the author if you hadn’t read the book? I digress…) I raised my hand and asked the author why she had the main character die of natural causes but at such a young age. The moment I spoke the words “the main character dies” the entire auditorium (along with the overflow room) let out a loud, somehow coordinated groan and the author reminded me, in front of the entire audience, that we weren’t supposed to give spoilers.

How do I respond? Do I say “OK my bad” and sit down? Oh no. That would be too normal.

Attempting to defend my question (which I believe did NOT actually give away any part of the “who-dun-it” details in this book) I decide to remind everyone of their own mortality.

I heard myself say “Well, is that really a surprise? Isn’t death the end of everybody’s story?” At which point the entire place busted out laughing, I sat down, handed the microphone back to the moderator, face flaming hot with embarrassment.

When I returned home and recounted my faux-pas to my husband, he said “Well, Can you find the message in your mess?”

Creativity gives us a choice.

I can call the situation a mess, identify with the mess, and wallow in the shame. Never ask a question at a book signing again. Tell myself that I’m too outspoken, not observant enough, or dumb because I misunderstood.

OR I can look for the message in the mistake:

One friend said she was impressed at my quick witted response that got the entire room to laugh.

My husband noted how everyone can relate to a story where they accidentally embarrass themselves (right? please tell me I’m not the only one!)

I can use this situation to remember who I am: important & valuable yes, but not so powerful as to ruin my entire life. I’m just a girl at a book signing, asking a good but evidently revealing question.

FYI, if I ever host my own book signing I will assume the people there have read the book and will allow all questions!

So how do we shift from perfection to creativity?

In other words, how can we use creativity to form a message out of the mess?

In his book “The Myths of Creativity,” my friend David (check his stuff out- he’s amazing! https://davidburkus.com/) suggests, “Force yourself to understand old problems in new ways. Adopt the mentality of a young learner…” 

As soon as we are born we are exposed to problems as old as humanity. How do we understand ourselves and the world around us? When we look to perfection there is only one way to do things: very clear instructions in black and white. There is no room for error, no room for mistakes, no room for diversity. It results in a binary identity: we are either good or bad, perfect or imperfect, saint or sinner, positive or negative. 

Creativity, on the other hand, takes these old problems and looks at them outside of these binary systems. If (and when) we do something negative or even when something negative happens to us, we still have the power to rework it into something good and beautiful.

Creativity frees us from a negative narrative, not only in art but in life. 

My kids show me how to be creative and imperfect.

As I watch my children grow, the less I care about them being perfect (whatever that means, right?) and the more I delight in their creativity. I mean, I love their art, yes, but not simply that. It’s how they take inventory of what they know about the world and piece it together in a way I used to when I was young but had forgotten. Like when my daughter mentioned she wanted a chandelier for her tree fort hideout: three very practical thoughts ran through my head in the span of seconds:

  1. Dear Lord why do you want something so fancy? 
  2. Buying a frikin chandelier is awfully expensive for an outdoor play area. 
  3. Maybe it would be cheaper if I figured out how to make one from wire and beads from a craft store but ugh how much time would that take? 

Before I even took a breath to explain why she couldn’t have one, my daughter had dug up some verdant chickweed and was holding it upside down; the root is just long enough to knot onto a slender branch and display the ornately bangled stems. A natural chandelier. Genius. Oh- and Problem solved! the weed chickweed blooming and green

In order to enjoy her tree fort, my daughter didn’t need me to spend money or time creating a chandelier. My daughter’s young mentality was positive and found a solution. When I approached the problem with an old mentality I found excuses and negativity. A creative approach searches with endless hope for beauty, as abundant and costly as chickweed.

Are you frustrated because you aren’t perfect?

Do you think you might be frustrated because you are trying to copy what you think is perfect but doesn’t fit you? Could you allow yourself to lay down perfection, what you think you “should” do, if even for a moment?

Take a few slow deep breaths and give yourself permission to admit what you actually want, what a truly beautiful life could look like for you.

Where perfection breeds criticism and frustration, creativity invites possibility and beauty. Breathe deeply again and ask yourself “What possibilities can I discover? How can I make something beautiful out of this?”

Life, like art, is a collection of experiences requiring a creative response. Perfection isn’t the defining paradigm. It’s like the difference between a sheet of blank paper and a sheet from a color-by-number book. There are no lines (there is no spoon…) to say where you can or can’t paint. What creativity lacks in control it makes up for space for a rainbow of diverse colors. You might be surprised what beauty you discover when your paradigm shifts from perfection to creativity. 

The opposite of perfect is creative.

Not imperfection.

Your ability to change, not your mistakes, defines you.

The next post is going to dive a little deeper into why I think I struggle with this; why I thought perfection was attainable, how I proved that with theology and scripture, and why I’m rediscovering what means to be a creative being.

For now, I would love to hear your thoughts about what I wrote! Leave a comment below, shoot me an email, or contact me on IG: @elisabethbojang

-Elisabeth

Painting with autumn fall colors creative but not perfect