Jimmy Carrane

5 Tips for Getting Over Perfectionism in Improv

Have you ever been afraid to start a scene because you didn’t think you had the perfect initiation? Or do beat yourself up when you make a move that your teammates don’t seem to understand? If you suffer from these symptoms, there is a word for what ails you, and it’s called perfectionism.

If you think perfectionism in your improv is about making better art, you are wrong. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It robs you of the joy of improvising and ultimately causes you to want to quit. If there’s no joy, you are not making art, you are creating pain.

Improv is a very intimate art form. When it’s working, we are exposing our imperfections and we don’t even realize it.

The bad news is I am a perfectionist. The good news is I cannot think of anything better for a perfectionist than improvising. Doing improv shows and taking classes helps you confront your perfectionism and become more comfortable with our imperfect selves.

Perfectionism in improv for me can show up before, during or after a performance. It’s an obsession, it has no boundaries, it’s a black-and-white thinker. It may show up as over rehearsing or not rehearsing at all. It may look like having panicked notes session after a particularly rough show, or like taking too many classes at once.

In my life, my perfectionism can be so powerful that I won’t take any action at all. I can sit paralyzed on my couch for hours with a whiteboard on my lap with a list of 15 names of potential guests for Improv Nerd, and I can’t email any of them because I’m afraid of not picking the perfect guest. The only way I get out of it is with the help of my wife, Lauren, who says, “Just send the emails out. There is no perfect guest.”

The whole point of perfectionism is to get you to not do the thing you love doing.

If you think you may suffer from it, get help now. Here are five tips I have found that have helped me with my perfectionism in improv:

1. Admit It
Perfectionism is not an asset, it’s not noble. It’s a problem. So realize you are doing it and admit it to yourself and others right now.

2. Set up boundaries, and don’t do it alone
When I record the intros and outros of Improv Nerd, I can really get into my perfectionism and waste hours trying to get it exactly right. To help, I will say to Lauren, “I am recording for no more than one hour.” By doing that, I become accountable to someone else and my perfectionism hates that.

3. Trust the process
Remember that the real joy in improv is in the process — the learning and the self-expression that comes from the connection with others, not the results. When we focus on the results, we are feeding out perfectionism junk food, and it gets so fat that it crushes our art.

4. Accept that improv is messy
If you want to get good at anything, you are going to have to suck at it first. By sucking, you are getting closer to perfection. Sometimes, this cliché can snap me out of my perfectionism for 20 minutes, and often that’s all it takes for me to have fun again.

5. Get professional help
Your perfectionism may be a lot worse than you think. Find a mental health professional or therapist to talk about this with, because let me tell you, perfectionism is serious shit.

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6 replies
  1. Joshua Boden
    Joshua Boden says:

    This is an important post. I would add that perfectionism is completely fear based. This fear brings about the desire to control outcomes. Embrace the natural perfection of the imperfect. It’s a lot more fun.

  2. Laura Parry
    Laura Parry says:

    I know if I tried to wait for perfection I would’ve reworded my previous posting to read “… perfect COMMENT” instead of “perfect reply”.

  3. Vera Flame
    Vera Flame says:

    I love this post! Thank you for including #5. So many posts make it sound so simple that you feel like an idiot if you can’t change your ways simply by reading a blog post! 😉 I recommend a technique called EFT Tapping. Helps immensely with perfectionism and works quicker than other talking methods.

  4. Jordan Weimer
    Jordan Weimer says:

    I didn’t like acting or writing until I suddenly was praised for my ability to do them. For acting, I had simply participated in some video competitions because it was fun and won it. In writing, I had written essays for a class, at the last minute, at 3am, when my inhibitions turned off and I got silly and wrote essays with the mentality of giving up any attempt to get a good grade. Ironically, those essays gave me the idea that if I took my work seriously I could take my already good work and make it truly special.

    I used to imagine having notebooks like DaVinci’s. Notebooks filled with awe-inspiring work. I’d buy these beautifully bound notebooks and envision myself dictating greatness like Mozart composing without ever making corrections. But instead of filling those notebooks with great work all I had was a stack of empty notebooks.

    Anytime I went to write, the reality that I had nothing special to say was overwhelming. This was especially true after times when I made something that people really like. Trying to create something that was up to a high standard every time was debilitating for me. I didn’t even think I had a creative block. I just thought I lost it.

    What I didn’t realize was that I made my best work by being irreverent. It was done for the hell of it. And, the reason it was special is that everyone else had come at it from a place of seriousness and I can’t create while having too much reverence. I just don’t. I guess.

    The best thing that ever happened to me was hearing finally, “mistakes are gifts,” and, “failing repeatedly is the route to success.” Suddenly, it put into perspective what I was doing and why I had stopped making good work for five years. I stopped because I was afraid of accepting the reality that I’m not prolifically great and the reality that Mozart was only prolifically great after spending twenty years composing. And, he’s a terrible role model. Most great artists don’t dictate master work like that. They just work prolifically and we select out their best work and only remember that. The reason I thought DaVinci’s notebooks are perfect is because I’ve only seen five pages of what were probably thousands of pages that he wrote in notebooks.

    The success of all artists is the same as the success of all people who walk. Everyone falls hundreds of times or more before they ever stand. Everyone falls over a thousand times before they walk. Every writer throws away a hundred pages before they get one great page. Every writer throws away a thousand pages before one page of master piece. How many shots did Michael Jordan shoot in practice to make shots during the game? Some pros shoot a thousand a day. How many shots did he have to take in game that were meaningless before he could nail an iconic game winning shot? In total he probably shot the ball a couple hundred thousand times for every iconic shot. If he’d been afraid to miss shots early on, he’d never have taken enough shots. When you understand that, you realize that what he did was take some above average gifts and apply an astronomically improbable amount of focussed effort to enhance it and what you saw was the logical consequence of that effort. And, it sobering to realize that he’s probably missed a thousand times as many shots as most people have ever taken. He’s failed prolifically if you ignore the ridiculous success. The secret to every skill is taking a lot of shots and finding a way to fail safely so you can fail infinitely. The law of averages at that point dictates that you will eventually succeed.

    For me, that means that I comment because the internet comment box is presumed to be a meaningless wasteland and failing there is par and deeply forgettable. And, now I like to fill notebooks up with notes. I doesn’t matter what topic they’re on or if they make me money or if they make me look like an idiot. Eventually, if I just enjoy the process, people may take notice like they did before and I might just get paid for it. If not, then whatever.

    My hope is that one day I might write five things worth photographing and some kid will have the impression that they must be perfect because the kid thinks my notebooks were perfect until the kid finally gets a hand on one of my notebooks and sees definitively that I was actually kind of dumb. In the end the kid realizes that the impression of me was based upon the five amazing things I did and suddenly becoming successful doesn’t seem so impossible. If the kid just fills up notebooks with stuff that is at the very least not as dumb as what I wrote, then she or he will eventually find success.


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