Practice and Perfectionism

Practice and Perfectionism
“Practice makes perfect.”

That little statement assumes a great deal, doesn’t it?  First, it supplies us with our endgame, without any interest in our own input. Then it tells us the endgame is perfection. Not a slight thing.

In my early 20’s I did a stint in art school, and the first assignment in our first class (the art school equivalent of “Drawing 101”) was this: buy a journal, and draw 10,000 drawings in it.

10,000, because a master once proclaimed that an artist cannot call oneself an artist until one has drawn at least 10,000 drawings. (A similar concept as in Gladwell’s Outliers.) Yet here was a noteworthy dichotomy in our assignment: we might have registered the instructor telling us to draw 10,000 drawings so we would become perfect draw-ers. But what he said was, “Draw… to be an artist.”

Van Gogh’s “Mulberry Tree”

I see beauty wherever I go, so when I create I convey the beauty I see reflected in reality. But they are not the pieces which hang on the walls of my home. My favorite pieces of art are not realistic or perfectly drawn at all: they are the ones with lines and colors unabashedly bent and skewed in a way that reflects a unique quality of the artist. I adore Van Gogh because he used an array of saturated colors and gobs upon gobs of paint — as if the world’s supply of oils would never expire (rather abundant-minded, don’t you think?). Trees, rolling hills and stars dip and swirl, and the world through his eyes is captivating, enticing, attractive, and oddly calming.

Van Gogh practiced to the point of mastery. But we don’t love his paintings because they’re masterful, or perfect. We love them because they’re Van Gogh. There’s something magical in his style, as only Van Gogh could do.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes a person.

The aim of 10,000 practices in our own craft is not perfectionism, it is to draw us out and reveal our distinctiveness as creators — just as the aim of sports training is to not to play a perfect game, but to make athletes strong players who can work together and rise above the challenges they encounter in the game.

We practice to build the right muscles and skill, and to play and test and try out those talents in a supportive environment; to do a thing so many times that the quality which only we can bring to it will have the space and time to emerge, and then shine.

On the long road, we must remember Vincent’s own words, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”


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