Sunday, September 25, 2011

Excellence vs. Perfection

When I am teaching art, I feel that the most frustrating students, second only to the completely apathetic, are the perfectionists.  It is difficult to be creative when you fear falling short of perfection.   Taking risks and pushing the envelope are such an essential part of the creative process.   Yet our society driven by test scores and GPA’s can quickly quench the creative spirit. 
I remember learning to throw on a potter’s wheel in college.  One teacher challenged me by asking the question, “How can you know how far you can push a pot if you never have one that falls down?”  Anyone who has tried to throw a pot knows that gravity works against you constantly as you try to defy it and keep the soft clay suspended in the air until it can be fired.   You can’t know where that point is unless you have pushed past it and the clay has fallen down. 
I have led students in mural painting projects (and let me tell you painting a permanent, large scale wall in a public place for the first time can be a daunting task).  What if it doesn’t come out right?  Being afraid that you won’t do a perfect job can cripple the creative spirit.  My motto for my art club as they painted the nurse’s office at the school where I worked was, “You can always paint over it.” Taking that pressure off helped free my students to take the risk and plunge into a new exciting project. 
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that we should surrender into being imperfect and thus become lazy.  But what if we shift the goal from striving to be perfect to striving for excellence?  How much more would we enjoy the process of making something if we weren’t trying to make it “perfectly”?  How much more successful would we be?
I wonder how I can help my son become someone who strives for excellence rather than one who is paralyzed by striving to be perfect.  Sometimes I think about this as he plays on his train table (actually he would correct me if I said “plays” instead of “works” on his train table).  He comes up with some crazy ideas as he balances blocks higher and higher.  He’ll try putting the roundhouse on stilts and then parking train cars underneath.  Sometimes the tracks don’t line up and he has to take them down and try a new solution.  Oftentimes it would be easier if I would jump in and build it for him.  But would that teach him that he couldn’t do it perfectly so he shouldn’t bother to try?  There is an article in the September issue of Parents magazine about inspiring creativity.  Leslie Garisto Pfaff writes, “Problem-solving is an essential aspect of creative thinking, which is why you need to step back and let your child find the answers.”  Rather than jumping in and rescuing them she suggests asking open-ended questions that will spark solutions.
I read a book called “NurtureShock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  One scenario describes a child painting a picture and the teacher looks at it and gushes about how that is the best picture she’s ever seen.  Scientific research finds that comments like that don’t encourage the child by providing positive reinforcement, but actually stunt the child’s creativity by making her think she has peaked at this early age.  If that was the best, where does she go from here?  This makes me consider how I compliment my child, being more specific about how thoughtfully he’s chosen his colors or, as they suggest in the book, how well he kept his markings on the paper and off the table.  Rather than tell him he did a perfect job I encourage the work he did and the thought he put into it.  Teaching him to be creative, and strive for excellence rather than strive for perfection. 

1 comment:

  1. Brookye
    Just saw this. This is the kind of article to submit to the magazine. Great writing.