Why Perfectionism Leads to Creative Burnout

And how you can avoid it with this elite sports peak performance tip
Why Perfectionism Leads to Creative Burnout
Jake McNeill
June 17, 2021
5 min read
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The SAS is an elite British army unit.  

Like the Navy Seals, they have a hell week where they weed out the weaker candidates with a series of extreme mental and physical challenges designed to get candidates to quit.

On one such exercise, recruits are standing on a ledge 50 feet above a river. The recruits have to fall backwards blindfolded into the freezing cold water.

As their bodies hit the water they go into shock. They involuntarily gasp and swallow water. If they panic, thrash about and fight they will be pulled deeper into the water and they will drown.

Whereas if they remain calm and relaxed their natural buoyancy will see them float safely to the top. The natural reaction is to panic and fight.

Burnout is a lot like this.

The more you thrash about and fight the stronger it becomes, the more you will be overwhelmed by the depth of the darkness and the greater the chance of drowning in the emptiness.

Whereas if you relax and surrender to the path you will return to your natural state much quicker and less painfully.  

I have experienced burnout several times. Managing artists and producers is a high pressure game. Helping artists to the top was very difficult, keeping them there was extremely stressful.

My last burnout, which was by far my worst, took me nearly a full year to recover from.

Burnout is a bitch

  • Burnout stole my joy. Be careful, it may steal yours too.
  • It destroyed my passion for the music industry and replaced it with feelings of disillusionment so strong that my soul ached.
  • Burnout destroys your creative spirit. It steals passion. It kills hope. And without hope, there is no light. And without light….
  • Creativity is hope. It is the belief that deep inside of us we have the ability to create something, anything, that can inspire change.

Creativity: the highs and the lows

Being creative can be stressful.

On one hand, we have the ability to create something that has never existed outside of our imagination. That’s a beautiful thing.

On the other, there is the fear it will get rejected and fail. That is the real kicker but an essential part of your growth as an artist or a producer.

Creativity is both a blessing and a curse.

It will push you to extremes.  It impacts on your happiness and well being. Our identities are often welded to our creativity. Our output and how our creative projects are received often dictate our self-worth.

When our creativity is flowing we bounce down the street with joy dancing in our eyes, when we’re stuck in a rut we cut a forlorn and frustrated figure.

A productive creative is a happy one. Taking action is the key.

It doesn’t matter what level you are at, creative burnout is an equal opportunity destroyer. You will recognise creative burnout when your head is fried and your spirit is empty.

All that passion and drive for creating music has gone and you’re left feeling, well, nothing, but a hollow emptiness that is alarming as the futility of everything washes over your creative soul.

Burnout is a real bitch.

Control freak perfectionism

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference
The serenity prayer

Most creatives are perfectionists. Most perfectionists are control freaks. We have a vision and we fiercely protect it. Creative control is essential to protect the integrity of the vision.

No matter what anyone makes, they should have control over it.
David Lynch

Perfectionism is fear. We fear we’re not quite good enough so we work harder and harder to perfect it. Refining and refining until we go round in circles and lose perspective.

If that wasn’t burnout inducing enough, the problems really begin when we try to control our environment.

Control freakery is fear avoidance. We are trying to control the environment in order to protect ourselves and our work.

Trouble is, the environment is uncontrollable. We can’t control what people think of us or how they react to our creative projects. We can’t control success or protect ourselves from failure. We control very little, it’s all an illusion.

This creates fear and anxiety of the high functioning variety. The more we feel fear the more we try and control the environment and the more anxious we become.

We thought we were protecting ourselves. In fact, we were imprisoning ourselves.

We can only control our effort, our attitude and our reactions

That is it. It’s pointless getting anxious and stressed about things you can not control. It’s a waste of your creative energy.

But that’s what most of us do.

For decades, I assumed I was an anxious person. I had lots of nervous creative energy. It never occurred to me that as a perfectionist trying to control my environment, that I was actually creating my own anxiety.

When I stopped trying to control everything my anxiety levels dropped significantly. I still have my moments but I know the signs and my anxiety quickly dissipates.

Art is never finished, only abandoned
Leonardo da Vinci

Perfectionism is an unachievable goal. Perfectionism creates anxiety. Anxiety is chronic stress. Trying to control your environment only creates more anxiety.

This leads to creative burnout.

You can’t control what people think about you or your material. You can only control your attitude, the effort you put into creating your art and how you deal with the reactions.

Ironically, we inadvertently create our anxiety in a way to protect ourselves from anxiety.

Control the controllables

This is one of the most common and effective peak performance techniques used in elite sports and big business. It is used by Olympians, Super Bowl winning teams and fortune 500 CEOs.

It also solved my anxiety issues.

The dichotomy of control was created by the Greek philosopher, Epictetus.

It is one of the key principles of Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is the philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome.

We all have a limited amount of energy.

The principle is to focus all your talent and energy exclusively in the key areas that you can control.

You only control your effort, your attitude and your reactions.

Whether you’re a hobbyist, a professional or a superstar. There’s one thing philosophy can teach you.

It’s all about focus in the critical areas you control.

As a music maker, there’s only one thing you control:

  • You control how you create.
  • You can’t control if your tracks get playlisted.
  • You control how you create.
  • You can’t control what people say about your material
  • You control how you create.
  • You can’t control whether people connect with your music or not
  • You control how you create
  • Comparing yourself to others is a waste of energy
  • You control how you create

Peak Creative Performance

Artists and producers often assume peak creative performance comes from a secret hack. That’s not true.

Peak creative performance isn’t about learning new tricks, it’s about unlearning negative habits. It’s about removing the blocks that limit your creative potential. It’s about focusing all your energies on your art.

We get in our own way. It’s human nature. We hamstring our art by focusing our creative energy in all the wrong areas.

Stop wasting your creative energy getting stressed or worrying about things you cannot control. If you learn this and live it every day, not only will you be a better music maker but you will feel much less stressed and anxious.


  • Focus all your energy on your effort, attitude and reactions. Disregard the rest
  • Any decision is better than no decision
  • Set boundaries
  • Self discipline: set release dates and release your material regardless of how happy you are with it
  • Take breaks from creating
  • Accept you are burnt out. Surrender to the path, denial only prolongs the experience
  • Perfectionism in art is a myth
  • Done is better than perfect
  • Decouple your identity from your creativity. You are defined by who you are and not what you create.

A bit about me

I help maverick artists and creatives hack into their true creative genius, crush the creative blocks that hold them back, and create their best work.

Every creative rebel’s worst enemy?

Creative mediocrity: Being bland. Staying in our lane. Creating in our comfort zone and following the crowds.

The Goal? To create authentic work that matters. Take creative risks, avoid creative burnout, and making a racket in saturated markets.

I’m a former multi-platinum artist manager who got burnt out and became an artist & creative blogger, coach, and consultant.

I’ve challenged myself to write 50 articles in 50 working days. 5 down, 45 to go.

Find out more information on my website or connect on my LinkedIn

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