There may be two similar – but notably different – forces fueling our creative pursuits and goals.
A key goal in our creative endeavors is excellence. The pursuit of creative excellence calls on us to deliberately and explicitly pinpoint what’s not quite right, and to do everything we can to fully correct what’s amiss. This is true whether we are creating a painting, a poem, or a new dance move, designing a scientific experiment, or developing computer code.
But we can take this pursuit of excellence too far, veering into a relentless quest of perfection, that risks the danger of undermining our creative motivation altogether, demoralizing us and leading to burnout.
Striving for perfection vs. excellence
A team of researchers at the University of Ottawa, Canada, tested how this distinction between seeking perfection vs. aiming for excellence plays out in creative idea generation.
As the researchers defined it, striving for excellence is a tendency to “aim … toward very high yet attainable standards in an effortful, engaged, and determined yet flexible manner” (Gaudreau, 2019, p. 200). This contrasts with what a perfectionist seeks which, instead, is a tendency to “aim … toward idealized, flawless, and excessively high standards in a relentless manner” (Gaudreau, 2019, p. 200).
Someone who is striving for excellence will allow and recognize that reaching for a high standard is the goal. And they will be flexible in getting there. If, though, someone is striving toward perfection then reaching excellence may not be enough; even after they reach excellence, they may remain unsatisfied, and rigidly and unflexibly continue their drive toward an ever more impeccable and faultless outcome.
To examine how these different forms of striving might be related to creativity, the researchers performed two studies. Both experiments asked participants to complete divergent thinking tasks (e.g., the alternative uses task asking for different ways to use a brick, and generating the names of all the things they could think of that make noise). Intriguingly, Study 2 included two additional measures to assess how flexibly people could generate ideas.
One task was an association task. In this task participants were given a starting word (e.g., “summer”) and then asked to continuously generate additional words where each successive word was related only to the immediately previous response. For example, when starting with the word “summer” a participant might reply: beach, sand, castle, knight, horse, and so on.
The second task was a dissociation task. In this task, the participant is instead asked to generate words that are unrelated to all of their prior responses. In the case of the starting word of “summer” a participant might respond with words such as banana, bicycle, unicorn, planet, camp…
Participants also completed questionnaire measures of striving for perfection vs. excellence, and assessments of their openness-to-experience such as their tendencies toward exploring novel ideas.
The creative costs of perfectionism
The researchers found that as a participant’s self-reported strivings for excellence increased, so too did the originality of their responses to the alternative uses task, and their self-reported openness to experience. This was not true for a participant’s striving for perfection, which was even somewhat negatively related to scores on creativity and openness to experience.
In Study 2, compared with perfection strivers, strivers for excellence also showed significantly higher numbers of ideas (fluency) including on the tasks measuring both their chains of related words (association) and their generation of unrelated words (dissociation). So not only did those reaching for excellence, generate ideas of higher originality, they also were more flexible searchers in their idea landscapes.
To think about
- Even though they are related, striving for excellence and striving for perfection are not one thing – they are not a single “monolithic” construct.
- We should think about how striving for perfection (rather than striving for excellence) may undermine our creative thinking and making.
- If we have especially high levels of motivation and are trying really (really!) hard, we may be tempted to avoid adopting novel approaches or strategies which are uncertain, and that may bring failure in their wake. We may be tempted to stick with familiar and already-tried strategies. But although these familiar strategies will be less uncertain and less scary, they are also less likely to lead to truly novel or innovative solutions. So sometimes trying really (really) hard may make it harder to be creative: We want to be trying “just hard enough” but still to be patient with our own – sometimes messy and vague – ways of thinking.
- Because striving for perfection may heighten our tendencies to critically analyze and judge, our self-critical stance may stand in the way of our ability to deeply immerse ourselves in our creative thinking-making endeavor. Our self-doubts and evaluations may break the spontaneous flow and interconnectivity of ideas, and prevent the fragile bubbles of newly-forming ideas from reaching our conscious awareness. Especially when we’re trying to find a new direction, or new perspective, we may need to put our internal critics “on hold” – telling them, they’ll have their chance, soon enough; for now though, they’re in the waiting room.
- So let’s strive for excellence, not perfection. Striving for excellence will keep us creatively trying, making, and trying again.
Chang, H-T., Chou, Y-J., Liou, J-W., & Tu, Y-T. (2016). The effects of perfectionism on innovative behavior and job burnout: Team workplace friendship as a moderator. Personality and Individual Differences, 96, 260–265. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.02.088
Gaudreau, P. (2019). On the distinction between personal standards perfectionism and excellencism: A theory elaboration and research agenda. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14, 197–215. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691618797940
Gaudreau, P. (2021). Separating the core definitional feature and the signature expressions of dispositional perfectionism: Implications for theory, research, and practice. Personality and Individual Differences, 181, Early Access. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.110975
Goulet-Pelletier, J-C., Gaudreau, P., & Cousineau, D. (2021). Is perfectionism a killer of creative thinking? A test of the model of excellencism and perfectionism. British Journal of Psychology, Early Access.https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/bjop.12530