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Path of the Perfectionist

by Joel Christiansen on 01/10/11 08:09:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Path of the Perfectionist

 

The pursuit of perfection is something I regard as a noble, if ultimately doomed, enterprise.

I have great respect for those who devote themselves wholeheartedly to the mastery of their craft (whether or not they aspire to perfection), but I am stirred most deeply by the rebellious spirit of the true seeker of perfection--the burning angel of defiance, one unafraid to test his/her heart, mind and guts against the (seemingly) unbreakable barrier of the impossible.

To my understanding a lot of things used to be considered impossible, until Roger Bannister or the Wright brothers or whoever came along and smashed the barrier. This is perhaps the strongest argument I could make in defense of the pursuit of perfection, and maybe reason enough for anyone to try doing the impossible; but many dangers await those who tread the steep and rocky path of the perfectionist.

Here is an article entitled Perfectionism: A Double-Edged Sword that really got me thinking about the psychological dark side of the quest for perfection. As I weighed the merits of the article a question occurred to me which I found particularly troubling, specifically: "When we pursue perfection, do we damage ourselves?"

 

 

 

http://cmhc.utexas.edu/booklets/perfection/perfect.html   

The clean-cut duality of "perfectionist" and "striver" presented in Perfectionism: A Double-Edged Sword struck me as a massive oversimplification. The points presented on both sides of this comparison appear to be polar extremes that probably do not describe real human beings all that accurately. For example, the personal quality of never being satisfied is not mutually exclusive with enjoyment of the creative process, or its final result.

I imagine what goes through the mind of most game developers at the end of a project is "I think I did well with the time and resources I had, I only wish I would have had more". This feeling exists in the gray area between "perfectionist" and "striver"; it expresses a genuine sense of accomplishment, while at the same time acknowledging a degree of dissatisfaction.

Such is the nature of human emotion--we rarely feel in absolute terms. The quality of never being satisfied is just another human idiosyncrasy, like the tendency to lose things, or call family members the wrong names. It is an innate element of personality, and not easily cast aside. What the black-and-white comparison between "perfectionist" and "striver" is missing is that they are one and the same person, experiencing exactly the same mental/emotional phenomena.

The distinction is drawn solely based on the individual's internal/external reaction to a given situation, and the described negative reactions can be attributed to inexperience, stress, poor self-esteem, or weak communication skills as easily as to the excessive pursuit of perfection.

 

The personal quest for perfection can indeed manifest itself outwardly in negative/destructive ways, however that depends on the maturity and restraint of the individual as well as other psychological factors, and is not necessarily a reflection on the fact that this person is someone who pursues perfection.

Setting unreachable goals, responding defensively to criticism, seeing a situation in all-or-nothing terms, and so on--these negative behaviors are by no means the sole province of the perfectionist. Anyone is capable of losing their proverbial cool, succumbing to stress, experiencing a moment of self-doubt or mental fatigue that results in handling a situation poorly.

The article lists many of the pitfalls and negative consequences associated with perfectionist behavior, such as impatience, anger, and obsessiveness; these destructive thoughts and behaviors pose a legitimate threat, and are not to be ignored. However I humbly ask you to consider whether in blaming these faults on the pursuit of perfection the author has wronged our heroic, doomed angel of the path of perfect creative truth. Does the path of the perfectionist demand too high a cost?

I submit to you that in order to pursue perfection, one must first seek to understand and accept one's own nature and to turn that nature to one's advantage, rather than allow oneself to be held down by it. The traps along the path of the perfectionist are only those that we design to ensnare ourselves... Therefore let us consider ways of making peace with the demands of the personal quest for unattainable perfection, of taking that insatiable hunger within and channeling it in a positive direction rather than futilely attempting to deny or suppress it.

 

-Easy is not a bad thing. Every art asset or piece of design you touch holds a lesson, regardless of the complexity/difficulty of the assignment. Think of everything you do, no matter how simplistic, as an opportunity to add another weapon to your creative arsenal. If an assignment is easy for you, that is ok! I know the heart of the perfectionist yearns to forge mighty works of ever more grandiose artistry, but you don't have to test your skills to the limit every single time. Just think of it as a fun, easy assignment you can have a good time working on, and take away whatever experience and knowledge you can.

 

 

-Feel the Feedback. If you have a tough time dealing with criticism, try conditioning yourself by asking for more. It is always a good idea to bounce your rough concepts/models off another artist, or even your art lead/art director. Chances are good that the feedback you receive at the initial concept phase of creating your asset/level will clue you in to key considerations that in the long run will help you pull off the assignment much more effectively. Sometimes informal design discussions/critiques of this kind even yield fresh ideas and unexplored creative directions...

-Confidence in yourself is not optional. While I agree that seekers of perfection (like many others) are susceptible to low self-esteem and other negative mental conditions, I submit to you that these negative effects stem from unrealistic expectations and single-minded obsession with advancement, not from the will that seeks unattainable perfection. Perfectionists can be harshly self-critical, and it is really easy for others to misinterpret this quality as a negative feeling directed toward them when in reality the frustrated creator is only angry with him/her self. If this sounds familiar to you, all I can say is that the answer begins with confidence in yourself. Find a way to build that, and you armor yourself against feelings of depression and isolation and other negative emotional forces.

-Work hard, play hard. If you are the kind of artist/designer I am, you maintain 100% focus whenever you work. This means you should maintain 100% relaxation when you are not at work, and this is much easier said than done. The best way I have found to unwind and regain perspective is to engage in some sport/physical activity that demands total concentration for at least 45-60 minutes (during which time I am physically unable think about work) and do it every day, or as often as I can. Surfing, running, martial arts and playing guitar really help me unplug when I start feeling tense about something I am working on.

-Keep it real. Beware of the dangers of placing unrealistic expectations on yourself and/or others. It is admirable to shoot for the stars in all you do, just don't be too hard on yourself when you fall short (as you are sure to do, many, many times). You have probably heard this before, but it bears repeating--if you laid it all on the line for an assignment or project and gave the very best effort you had inside you, you should feel proud no matter what the results looks like. Whether at the end of the day or looking back on a long career, it is a creator's heart, commitment, and the truth of his/her vision that counts.

 

 

I actually think the sword is an apt symbol of the seeker's inner quest for perfection, just not in the way it was used in Perfectionism: A Double-Edged Sword... The rugged and treacherous path of the perfectionist is the will to seek the truth (in the artist's case, the truth of his/her creative vision) with all that one is, holding back nothing in the effort. The real sword of perfection is forged of balanced, disciplined commitment, gleaming with the sweat, blood and tears of the creator, slashing away imperfection in the relentless pursuit of unattainable truth.

 

I would define "perfectionist" very simply as someone who by their nature is never satisfied. Perfectionists are the kind of human beings who make history, who change the world by their example, who inspire the rest of us to better ourselves, and I think the human race needs people like that. The seeker of perfection sets forth with the foreknowledge that her objective is unattainable; that failure is assured.

But her failures are of no concern, they are necessary steps along the path. She accepts them as such, and gratefully reaps the knowledge and experience gained in the attempt. Her true enemies are within--her own preconceptions, ignorance and doubt. She duels with them perpetually, yes; but the struggle is not futile. Each small victory yields a measure of increased wisdom, confidence and ability. Determined to reach beyond her limits even in the face of certain failure, blazing emblem of indomitable human spirit, defiant goddess, she lights the path.

 


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