What Can Michelangelo Teach Us About Perfectionism?

What Can Michelangelo Teach Us About Perfectionism?
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Michelangelo Buonarroti. What a guy.

March 6th 2019 marks year number 544 since the day he was born in 1475.

Despite being a well known bloke nowadays, the finer details of Michelangelo’s early years as a creative have always remained pretty mysterious. Mysterious, at least, compared to the high-profile accomplishments made in his later life as a poet, sculptor, architect, and painter – all of which would have undoubtedly contributed to making his… whatever the 15th century equivalent of a CV is, look great.

It might be a bit of a stretch to suggest that Michelangelo started from purely humble beginnings, what with him having the unusual opportunity of studying classical sculpture in the palace of the Florentine ruler Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Medici family. But, credit where credit is due, there’s no doubt he had to put in some hard graft during this initial point in his creative career to get where he ended up as one of the most celebrated artists ever.

Through a combo of the circles he moved and networked within, and the talents he possessed, it didn’t take Michelangelo long to build up momentum where his work was concerned. 

In his early twenties, he was commissioned to create his now famous marble depiction of Jesus and his mother Mary (titled Pietá or Pity) for St. Peter’s Basilica – which took him two years in total to finish. It was only a short while after that he took the reins on the creation of a marble statue of David – which still today stands strong as one of Florence’s most prized symbols and one of Michelangelo’s most iconic works.

After he’d checked the 17-foot statue of David off his to-do list, Michelangelo took a sculpting hiatus between 1508-1512 to give the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel a lick of paint. Despite claiming he wasn’t a painter The Creation of Adam amongst the other frescoes he completed are possibly the most widely recognised of all of his works.

At this point it would be pretty fair to suggest that it was the quality of the end products, and the overall satisfaction of the clients (Pope Julius II in the case of the Sistine Chapel ceiling) that demonstrated exactly why he got the gig in the first place. 

It was clear Michelangelo was never a child prodigy, but, what he did possess was a mishmash of potential, passion, and a commitment to putting in the work.

When it came to the production part of his work, Michelangelo was often harsh and extremely self-critical – something I’m sure many people in the creative and writing industries know all too well. As someone who strived for perfection, he was often hindered by his inability to compromise. As a result he found himself often dissatisfied with his creations regardless of how impressive they were to others around him.

With his inflexibility often came a short temper. While working on the Sistine ceiling he famously became angry with ‘the ineptness’ of his painting assistants who were hired to share the workload. He insisted that he do the job alone, and that he did. Outsourcing isn’t for everyone I suppose.

But there’s a deeper message here.

If you personally identify as someone who strives for perfection, you’ll likely feel you have the potential within you to perform at a much higher level than the average person – and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working hard and pushing the boundaries of what’s expected.

But your own expectations of perfectionism can be costly in terms of satisfaction towards your own work and efforts. Worse yet, by putting yourself under a greater amount of stress to get things perfect, you waste time over insignificant details and risk burn-out or exhaustion. 

Considering the scale of Michelangelo’s achievements it might seem contradictory to suggest that a change to any part of his temperament would’ve impeded the scale of that success. But despite everything he achieved and the recognition he received while he was still alive, he was often miserable, he had regular depressive episodes, he didn’t have many friends, and to top it all off he had chronic back-pain. 

What I’m saying is, you don’t need to be perfect to be good at what you do. Michelangelo’s passion and his commitment to his work should definitely serve as inspiration, but he’s proof that letting perfectionism control you won’t make your life any easier.

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