Songwriter Theory Podcast
Episode 25

How to Get Over Destructive Perfectionism

Joseph Vadala published on

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It’s great to have high standards. We want to achieve greatness at our craft, not adequacy.

But sometimes high standards can morph into destructive perfectionism. Sometimes destructive perfectionism is masquerading around as high standards.

Either way, we can (and probably at some point, will) fall victim to it.

So what is destructive perfectionism?

It’s when your perfectionism begins to become a hindrance to your creativity.

If you aren’t making much progress on your songs because you feel the need to write it perfectly the first time, you have fallen victim to destructive perfectionism.

If you refuse to move on to another song or another part of a song while writing or recording, you have fallen victim to destructive perfectionism.

Let’s talk about how to combat this if we’re going through it and habits to form to ensure we don’t fall victim to it easily in the future.

Getting It Right The First Time

The first step is accepting you won’t get it right the first time.

Once in a great while, a miracle happens. Milk and honey rain from the sky (Chocolate milk obviously), everyone admires you as a person and an artist, and the Patriots lose the superbowl.

But, for every other day, you won’t get it right the first time.

I’m a software developer by day, and we always joke about how rare it is that something we develop works right the first time. Sure, by time the user sees it for the first time, it probably mostly works.

But, behind closed doors, that was after the developer worked out the kinks in his code for a while. Maybe coming up with several non-functional or non-ideal versions before getting something they like. And then the QA has to test it. They will inevitably find an issue and then the dev needs to work out those bugs.

Eventually it gets through. But it’s pretty rare that something works perfectly the first time.

Songwriting should be seen the same way. We shouldn’t even expect to ever get it right the first time. Sure, we should try to get it right, but we shouldn’t be putting on unnecessary pressure.

A great way to solve this issue is to use something else prevalent in the world of software- an iterative process.

Basically, you keep making passes over the same thing, making it a bit better each time.

You don’t try to write the whole song perfectly the first time. The first time you just write. Write 20 terrible verses you will never use. Write a bunch of terrible piano riffs. Write a bunch of yawn-inducing chord progressions. Don’t even worry about it. Just let the creativity flow.

Next time you go over the song, figure out what parts had potential and which parts are just junk. Maybe write some more. Or maybe refine some parts that have potential.

Eventually you’ll have a chorus, a couple verses, and a bridge (or whatever your song structure becomes). But maybe you aren’t happy with your second verse still. A line or two just doesn’t seem quite right. So you keep working at that verse, making a bit better each time you touch it.

Eventually you will get there.

There are SO many benefits to this iterative process. One is the huge pressure release. There is something so freeing about just writing whatever comes to mind. If you aren’t worried about getting it perfect the first time, you can write so much. And there will be good stuff in there.

Another benefit is that you get to refine over time. This allows you patience with your process and allows you to make constant progress. Instead of staring at a page, thinking of the perfect verse, you change a couple words or lines at a time, making it 1% better at each pass-through.

Constant progress is important for the obvious reason of progress being good as well as the psychological win it provides. It’s super demoralizing to sit down to write and write NOTHING for an hour.

But making a couple lines just a bit better or writing a bunch of crappy lyrics still gives you a psychological win. Progress inspires you to keep going.

Refuse To Move On Until You Get Something Perfect

Let’s say you look in the mirror and decide it’s time to start working out. You don’t want to be single any more and those biceps aren’t impressing the ladies.

So what do you do?

Do you do bicep workouts every day for 3 months until they are looking good? And then do 3 months of just triceps and pecs to get them tight-t-shirt-ready?

No....

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