Don’t Let Perfectionism Stop You

DSCN0357Many of us in science tend to be perfectionists. This characteristic can be a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, it drives us to produce outstanding work. On the other, it can paralyze us and prevent us from even embarking on a project because we anticipate that our efforts will not be perfect.

Perfectionism is what underlies writer’s block and other artistic blocks. Novice writers think that each sentence has to be written perfectly the first time and that all the content must immediately flow together just so and make sense right from the start. I know of few successful authors who write this way. It is an impossible standard. Moreover, such thinking stifles spontaneity and creativity and causes people to freeze up. Some become so paralyzed that they never put pen to paper. I know a lot about writer’s block because I’ve suffered from it and have overcome it. I’ve also helped perfectionist students trying to write their first paper or thesis overcome it.

What does perfectionism have to do with science videography? Well, I imagine that a number of you are hesitating to even try to make a science video because you think it has to be of Hollywood quality (or at least as good as those slick science videos published by media professionals). That standard is the wrong one to be comparing your work to, as I’ll get to in a minute.

First, I’ll let you in on a secret. Your videos (and any other information product) will NEVER be 100% perfect. You can strive for perfection, but you’ll never get there. No matter how hard you try, there will be mistakes and parts of your video that might be improved by reshooting, or reorganizing, or by making some other change. Also, you will never produce a video that everyone absolutely likes and finds no fault with. There always will be someone who will take issue with some part of your video.

The point is:  if you believe your video must be perfect (or meet some over-the-top standard) to be any good, you’ll never finish a video. You’ll either never get started, or you will start something but never finish. You’ll continue to revise and tweak and agonize….and eventually will shelve the project.

How do you break such a block? It’s simple. Silence the censor in your head. The one that looks over your shoulder and scrutinizes everything that you try to do. How do you do that? I teach students how to overcome writer’s block by having them practice something called “spontaneous writing”. I give them a topic and tell them to write about it for five minutes as fast as they can, without stopping to correct punctuation or grammar. Their goal is to get their ideas down quickly and without stopping to think (which does not give their censor time to disapprove). If the student follows through, the result is usually a revelation to them. They discover that their spontaneous output is creative, interesting, and surprisingly compelling…despite not being technically perfect. I then have them revise their work by correcting grammar and punctuation and reorganizing to improve the flow. This exercise usually breaks through their paralysis and allows them to begin writing; the writing practice leads to improvement; each piece they complete gives them the confidence to write more.

For video, the solution is also to ignore your internal censor. Pick a simple topic and just shoot some footage. You might ask fellow students a single question and film their responses. “What do you like best/least about graduate school?” Shoot some B-roll around campus and in your department. Cut out the really bad parts and assemble the various clips in random order. You’ll likely be surprised at how interesting your video turns out to be. And, most importantly, you will have improved your videography skills and gained some confidence.

The block may manifest as a difficulty in selecting a video topic or getting started on a project that seems overwhelming. The problem with selecting a topic is often due to too many choices. When there are too many options, we have difficulty making choices because we are afraid that we will regret our selection later. The anticipated regret is greater with many choices compared to few choices. The solution is to set restrictions, e.g., on the topic, the style, or the length of the video. You might limit yourself by making a video that is one minute in length, for example. That restriction automatically removes a lot of options. You could also restrict yourself to a particular format such as the interview example above. If the job still seems overwhelming, then breaking it down into smaller jobs often helps.

You are probably still thinking about those great science videos with slick animations and soaring music and that this is the standard you need to meet. You are quite wrong there. All you need do is watch a few viral videos on YouTube to see that video popularity is not determined by technical or artistic quality. Many viral videos are poorly shot and appear to be unedited. To be successful, your videos need only be good enough, i.e., good enough to satisfy most of your viewers. That standard is still fairly low because most video online is not anywhere near Hollywood quality. Your video need only exceed a certain threshold to be acceptable to most viewers. And that threshold is nowhere near the Hollywood or Discovery Channel standard. That may change in the future as more people become better skilled at shooting video, and expectations rise. But for now, the bar is pretty low.

Let me hasten to add that this advice is not meant to be an excuse for sloppiness. You should still strive to make the best video possible. If you can reach that Hollywood standard, then great…as long as you don’t let it stop you from finishing your project in a reasonable amount of time. However, if you are feeling blocked, perhaps you need to dial back your goal from Discovery Channel-worthy to something more achievable (at least in the short-term).

In summary, You will find that your less-than-perfect videos will be quite successful….if they meet or exceed the quality of most videos out there. So, get your less-than-perfect videos finished and online. I guarantee that you will learn something with each project, and the next one will be better than the previous one.