Using Creativity as the Antidote to Perfectionism
Why perfectionism is fear in disguise and how to embrace being "perfectly imperfect" to unlock your creative capabilities
Today’s post is a guest post from Katina Mountanos. She is the co-founder and Chief Well-being Officer of Daydreamers, which is a creativity-for-wellness platform that’s expanding the minds of adults through creative habits.
After her own case of burnout, she became fascinated by the power of creativity to improve her overall well-being. That’s when she started Daydreamers and sought to help others tap into their creative capabilities.
Katina is also a published well-being author (Simon & Schuster), a certified coach + meditation teacher, and has a Master's in Clinical Psychology from Columbia's Mind-Body Institute. Her work on creative well-being has been featured in publications like Teen Vogue and Fast Company, and she's amassed a following of nearly 100k+ globally.
Even though I have a Master’s in Clinical Psychology and have been studying burnout culture for years, I would have never considered myself a perfectionist.
Nonetheless, in my head, I was driven by uncertainty, fear, and constant striving - nothing ever felt good enough. When I reached a goal, I quickly moved on to the next one. No matter what I achieved - collecting degrees, high-caliber jobs, a book deal, a relationship - I still felt empty inside. I kept thinking that just over the hill, I’d find the fulfillment I was looking for.
The philosophy I lived by was simple:
The harder I try + the more stuff I do = the better the outcome
But, what if I told you there was something else undergirding that doctrine?
Through the course of my professional training and ongoing introspection, I learned that the true expression of this principle is:
The more I control = the safer I feel, which = the worthier I am
We over-achievers have tricked ourselves into believing that perfectionism is an acceptable quality that is a contributing factor to our success. And, perhaps more importantly, we pursue perfectionism because of subconscious beliefs that, unless we are perfect, we are not worthy of love, recognition, and respect.
We believe that by simply putting our heads down and charging toward our goals exactly how we mapped them out, with unrelenting standards, we’ll achieve the ideal outcome and the acceptance that we seek.
It’s not uncommon in our culture - we’ve been taught to seek external validation in all that we do and to avoid imperfections like they’re the enemy. This mindset isn’t solely present at work, or in classic achievement-driven environments, either. It even shows up in the way we care for ourselves, or even how long we allow ourselves to rest.
However, unlike what we’ve been taught, the scientific literature indicates that embracing imperfection is the key to unlocking our creative capabilities and experiencing more joy in just about everything that we do.
By doing so, we’ll experience a greater sense of well-being, develop cognitive flexibility that will endow us with new abilities, and intervene on our own behalf with an antidote to the perfectionism that’s held us hostage in all aspects of our lives.
Assessing if You’re a Perfectionist
According to research, perfectionism is one of those traits that pervades almost everything. It can reveal itself in how we make decisions at work to how we allow ourselves to spend our free time. It’s present in how we organize our home or even the way we communicate with our partners.
Take a moment to consider what a perfectionist means to you.
Is it the person that always maintains a tidy desk at work? Or someone who meticulously manages their to-do lists? Is it the person who never CC’s the wrong ‘Steve’ in the email thread?
Let’s look at perfectionism more objectively according to test formats used by clinicians.
If you want to take additional tests, there’s a multi-dimensional test here and another one here.
Or, if you are not inclined to take the tests, take a moment to subjectively assess if any of the following characteristics ring true to you.
One aspect of perfectionism that’s missing from this picture and that we’ll dive into further is something called cognitive rigidity.
Think of it like that runner only seeing the road in front of them as a path to reach their goal. Because overachievers are so hyper-focused on getting to an unrealistic goal, we rarely look for alternative solutions that could lead us to similar (or even superior) outcomes.
Instead, we’re met with the common cycle of procrastination, self-criticism, fear of failure, and anxiety. However, that doesn’t have to be the outcome.
Using Cognitive Flexibility to Combat Perfectionism
So, how do we train ourselves to notice all the paths up the hill? Making an investment in your Cognitive Flexibility can help you break free from the self-defeating cycle of perfectionism.
In straightforward terms, Cognitive Flexibility is the process that occurs in our brain when we switch from one context to another. It can happen when we’re substituting a missing ingredient into a dinner recipe or pivoting a project due to unforeseen circumstances.
The most fascinating aspect of Cognitive Flexibility is that it can be improved over time. As the research states:
“Firstly, Cognitive Flexibility is an ability which could imply a process of learning, that is, it could be acquired with experience. Secondly, Cognitive Flexibility involves the adaptation of cognitive processing strategies. A strategy, in the context of this definition, is a sequence of operations which search through a problem space (Payne et al. 1993). Cognitive flexibility, therefore, refers to changes in complex behaviors, and not in discrete responses. Finally, the adaptation will occur to new and unexpected environmental changes after a person has been performing a task for some time.”
To summarize, Cognitive Flexibility is:
Something that can be learned through experience
Involves adaptations and changes in complex behaviors
The adaptations occur after the problem has been explored for some time
An illustration by Tim Urban provides a great visual metaphor.
Think of the left side of this image as a perfectionist, and the right side as someone with a creative, curious, cognitively flexible brain.
To someone on the left, their only goal is to run up the single-track hill as fast as possible and without a single clumsy stride. To someone on the right, the possibilities are endless. The path joyfully requires meandering.
Up until recently, scientists believed that our brains were formed by - at maximum - the age of twenty-five, and then the mind began to steadily deteriorate.
However, neuroscientists have shown that our brains have plasticity and are able to make new connections so long as we provide fresh inputs. If you want a deep dive into the latest research on neuroplasticity and how we learn, check out this video.
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Techniques for Developing Cognitive Flexibility
In psychological research, Cognitive Flexibility is positively correlated with creative thinking and openness to new ideas. In order to cultivate it, we must practice creative, flexible thinking in ways big and small.
Change daily routines
Do something you already know how to do, but do it differently. Routines become cognitive ruts. If you feel a reactionary resistance to trying something new, that’s probably the ideal opportunity to train for cognitive flexibility.
For example, you can start with simple tasks like taking a different route to work or to your local grocery store or gym. At Daydreamers, when our members begin experimenting with new routines, it indicates that they’re on the precipice of implementing large-scale change in their lives.
You can also explore changes to daily work routines. If you tend to communicate most of your ideas visually, try communicating them through long-form text instead, such as an Amazon-style memo.
Seek new experiences
New experiences lead to new and different synaptic connections in the brain. They’ve also been shown to trigger the release of dopamine, which not only increases motivation but also enhances memory and learning.
Andy Johns mentioned that he encouraged his employees to “...take on consulting or advising gigs outside of their day job to consider how what they learn from helping another company could be creatively applied to their full-time job.”
From his perspective, “Any founder or CEO that prohibits this is thinking short-term. They may be worried about an employee losing focus on their business. But what they’re missing out on is the impact it may have on developing more creative approaches that can be applied to their startup.”
Practice creative processes
Another way to build cognitive flexibility is to intentionally explore unconventional approaches and ideas. In psychology, this is known as Divergent Thinking.
One study by psychologist Dr. Robert Steinberg showed that students’ grades improved when pushed to think in new, creative ways.
One example of this that can be applied at work is to use Design Sprints when coming up with new product concepts. There is a specific step in Google’s design sprint methodology that asks the participants of the sprint to explore other products that inspire them.
Here’s a bonus tip to experiment with. Research shows that putting bounds on your creative process increases the frequency and quality of creative ideas. You might try setting a timer or limiting your resources when brainstorming.
Transfer knowledge across fields
Being able to combine unique ideas together and “imagine future states that don’t yet exist” is creative thinking at its finest.
Dr. David Eagleman, a Stanford neuroscientist and creativity researcher, often talks about three elements of creativity: breaking, blending and bending. Elon Musk is perhaps the most well-known example of the cross-pollination of knowledge across fields.
Andy Johns told me about a visit he made to the Tesla factory around 2012. It was a private event where Elon was unveiling the fully built Model S to a few thousand people. He was on stage and began to speak about the technology that went into making the car both fast and safe. Elon said, “The Model S is the safest and fastest family-sized sedan ever made. We were able to use insights from the materials we created to make SpaceX rockets and apply them to the car to make it lightweight, fast, and durable.”
The animal kingdom has long-inspired many technological innovations. This article has a few incredible examples, like how the beak of the Kingfisher bird inspired the front nose of Japan’s bullet trains.
Engage in tasks that put you in a Flow State
One of the most accessible ways to enhance cognitive flexibility is by spending time on things that put you in a Flow State.
Unlike what modern culture wants us to believe, Flow doesn’t equal productivity. Flow occurs when we’re intrinsically motivated, and is often referred to in research as an autotelic experience. It’s the ultimate form of practicing everyday creativity - i.e. creating for enjoyment, without an output to measure.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a creativity researcher and one of the great thinkers behind the ‘positive psychology’ movement, is one of the leading voices on Flow. He studied artists, musicians, and other creatives to see what happened when they were not only performing at their highest levels - but feeling their best.
Mihaly states in the video:
“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”
Getting into a state of flow consistently via everyday creative behaviors, like cooking or doodling, or even gardening makes our brains more flexible in all parts of our lives - at home and at work. In our research at Daydreamers, we’ve found that engaging in everyday creative habits outside of work increased resilience and focus by 4x and also reduced feelings of burnout by 50%.
Explore responsible use of psychedelics
When Andy Johns and I began collaborating on this article, he mentioned that he had experienced a profound shift in his openness to new ideas stemming from his professionally guided psychedelic experiences. To be transparent, it’s not something that I have direct experience with myself, but I’m aware of the growing interest in it.
Leading proponents of the responsible use of psychedelics have argued that, among their many uses, they can stimulate openness to new ideas and creative thinking. Thanks to a recent resurgence in psychedelic research, the evidence is compelling.
Ethnobotanist and psychedelic advocate Terrence McKenna once said of the psychedelic experience that “…the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas.”
Rick Doblin from MAPS was on the Lex Fridman podcast discussing the role of psychedelics in developing greater creativity and reducing cognitive rigidity. It’s worth a listen for those that are curious about this emerging field of medicine.
Importantly, people should explore psychedelics cautiously. Although the research is encouraging for some, there is evidence that these tools should not be used by everyone.
Becoming ‘Perfectly Imperfect’
For perfectionists, there is hope. Our brains have the capacity to change.
Unlike we’ve been taught, we don’t need to try harder to shift from a perfectionist mindset into a more creative way of being. With the guidance in this article, you can introduce daily practices that stimulate creative thinking, which is the antidote to a rigid, perfectionist mind.
Having fun and making mistakes isn’t frivolous - they’re strengthening our brains for the long term. And it frees us from the trap of perfectionism that keeps us stuck in loops of procrastination, fear, anxiety, and rigid thinking.
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