Overcoming Perfectionism: A Designer’s Mindset

Last week I spontaneously took a sample introductory course to UX & UI design, since both are increasingly becoming more and more relevant to my field of communications. I found it very stimulating, not just in terms of course content, but in terms of how designers approach failure.

As the course progressed, I found myself amused by the kinds of statements the instructors were making:

  • “When you’re brainstorming ideas, go for quantity over quality.”
  • “Generate bad ideas and turn them into good ideas.”
  • “Fail fast, improve fast.”

It seemed as if most designers were not only comfortable with failure, but they expected to fail and even did so “on purpose” in order to develop better designs in the long run. They weren’t bogged down by crappy ideas; they willingly came up with them, knowing that good ones would eventually emerge.

It was almost as if failure was written into the iterative design process, which makes sense, given that it involves researching, ideating, designing, prototyping, testing, and then making reiterations based on feedback to get better results. The first, second, and even third iterations were never expected to be 100% perfect. Free from the pressure of perfectionism, they were free to get their hands dirty and create some cool stuff.

I found this approach refreshing. Usually we go to school to learn how to “get things right.” But the instructors of this course seemed adamant on teaching us how to fail well so that we can eventually get things right — an interesting point to drill into our heads.

Failure is part of the process, not the antithesis of success. In a field characterized by innovation, nothing kills creativity better than perfectionism.

As usual, I started thinking about how this could be applied more broadly to life. I, myself, have experienced the paralysis of perfectionism — when we stop trying new things or aiming for more out of fear of looking foolish, failing, or making a mistake.

  • We act as if making one wrong move will doom us to a life of misery, so we put off making decisions or committing to any course of action until we’re sure we’ve chosen the right one.
  • We act as if failure will prove that we really are incompetent, as if ‘ability’ is something fixed that cannot be improved over time, or as if errors cannot eventually be corrected.
  • We act as if things aren’t worth creating unless they’re fleshed out perfectly to be valuable at all.

With this kind of mentality, of course we’ll be paralyzed; everything will seem like too big of a risk, and we will never be able to produce anything substantial with our lives.

The key to freeing us from paralyzing perfectionism is to remember that there is always room for adjustment. Nothing is ever set in stone. Even finished products require ongoing software updates to fix bugs and improve features. If this is true for products and services, could it not be true for our own lives?

Could we not have room to fail so that we can eventually come up with the best versions of whatever we’re trying to create in our inner and outer worlds? Could we learn to view mistakes as natural rather than shameful? Could we apply the mantra of “fail fast, improve fast” to our lives, rather than demand that we get everything right on the first try? Could we all just relax a little and adapt the designer’s casual and even welcoming attitude towards failure, and see where that takes us?

I think it’s worth trying.

Here’s the white-hot truth: If you go bankrupt, you’ll still be okay. If you lose the gig, the lover, the house, you’ll still be okay. If you sing off-key, get beat by the competition, have your heart shattered, get fired … it’s not going to kill you. Ask anyone who’s been through it.” – Danielle LaPorte

– Celine

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