Nicole Stevenson of Dear Handmade Life: “Even if you expect yourself to be perfect, no one else does”

Even if you expect yourself to be perfect, no one else does. We are usually our own toughest critics. We notice the things that we could have done better, even the minute detail that someone else would never know unless we pointed it out to them. Remember that no one is thinking about you and […]

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Even if you expect yourself to be perfect, no one else does. We are usually our own toughest critics. We notice the things that we could have done better, even the minute detail that someone else would never know unless we pointed it out to them. Remember that no one is thinking about you and judging you as much as you are about yourself.

Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Stevenson.

Nicole Stevenson is the CEO and Creative Director of Dear Handmade Life. She turned her passion into a profession at the age of 24, when she started selling Random Nicole, a handcrafted clothing line, at flea markets and backyard craft fairs, eventually growing it to a thriving, international wholesale business. Nicole’s desire to help other creatives pursue their dream business and discover the joy of making led her away from her own handmade business and into teaching, consulting and running her own workshop studio — and eventually co-founding Dear Handmade Life in 2007. Now, she connects, educates and shortens the learning curve for other creatives by sharing what she’s learned through the Dear Handmade Life events, blog and podcast.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

From a young age, I knew that the corporate world wasn’t for me. Nearly everyone in my family is independently employed and our family ethos of entrepreneurship and creativity was ingrained in me early. I’m not cut out to sit behind a desk under fluorescent lights, just working for the weekend. Those types of jobs would always make me think about that scene in Joe vs. The Volcano where he’d finally had enough of his oppressive office job and launched into a big speech about how short life is. Like Joe, I knew that I didn’t want to sit at a desk, working for “the man”. I wanted to make a living doing something artful, purposeful and filled with passion.

I can’t recall a time in my life when I wasn’t creating. I spent many childhood afternoons combating only-child boredom by scrawling poetry and drawings on the inside of my closet door where my mom couldn’t see my own private art gallery. When I was nine, I DIYed my first business cards with Mr. Sketch scented markers and Mrs. Grossman’s stickers for my first business: a handmade stationery shop housed in a refashioned refrigerator box in my front yard. In fifth grade, I snuck into the teacher’s lounge to self-publish my first short story on the mimeograph machine. In high school, my love of making continued when I almost got kicked out of my Catholic girls’ high school for submitting nude sketches for the student art show. (No regrets.)

Fast forward to a post-undergrad summer spent on the Venice Beach boardwalk, hawking my paintings to tourists that led to nearly a decade of designing prints and imagery for my clothing line, Random Nicole, in my twenties. I juggled running my clothing line, teaching arts and crafts to hundreds of children and adults in schools and in my own brick-and-mortar workshop space, while getting a master’s degree in English.

Creating has not only been present, but is the driving force in everything I’ve done over the course of my life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I first left the life of academia to pursue a life making a living from my creativity, I failed a lot. I had tons of false starts and so many moments of second-guessing my decision as I looked at my empty bank account or stood on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck after my old car broke down… again, or wondered why on earth I thought I could pay my rent with my art when I hadn’t even gone to art school. But, I had way more triumphs — like selling out my first art show, turning my tiny apartment into an art gallery for a night to make rent money (and succeeding!) and somehow managing to keep a roof over my head and the utilities on month after month of selling what I made, even though I was fumbling through a business that I was learning in real time. After a few cycles of this, I started to realize that as long as I kept trying and putting myself out there and saying yes and working, that I was going to move forward. Each experience was a stepping stone to the next chapter in my creative, small-business journey. That’s when the old saying, “It’s all grist for the mill” started popping into my head. When a risk I took didn’t pan out, I’d remind myself that all of it was grist for the mill, in other words, each experience, each success, each misstep, was all useful as a lesson learned and as a thoroughfare to the next chapter.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

When I read The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks, I totally had one of those classic lightbulb moments. I’m a big self-development junkie and I always manage to find something useful in books like that, but Gay’s ideas about what holds us back from our true highest potential really spoke to me. In a nutshell, Gay says that everyone has a Zone of Genius where your passion and purpose align in the deepest sense and that what he calls Upper Limit Problems stand between you and that real fulfillment and service to the world. There are four main Upper Limit Problems and the one that hit home for me was feeling like you’re fundamentally flawed. I hadn’t realized that other people shared this feeling that they weren’t enough and that something about them was different and that unless you get to the other side of that thought and truly believe that you are enough, you can never live up to your true highest potential.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Risk-taker: When I decide that I want something, I just go after it. I don’t waste time thinking about how, I get to work and figure it out along the way. When I produced my first conference, Craftcation, I had never even attended a conference. I had no idea what a conference was supposed to be like, so I worked with my then partner and we created what we wished existed. I didn’t let my lack of knowledge or experience or resources stop me from moving towards the thing that I knew I needed to make happen… Craftcation, a business and craft conference for creatives.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?

Perfectionism doesn’t necessarily have to mean that everything needs to be perfect all the time. I think of perfectionism as striving to do the best you can.

The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

Perfectionism gets a bad rap. People tend to imagine a polished, stern boss for whom no one can do anything right. I think tempered perfectionism is one of the greatest assets a boss can have. As someone who has been labeled a perfectionist in my business and in my personal life, I can say that I don’t ever want to not be a perfectionist, but rather I aim to move towards being a restrained perfectionist. This means that I realize that very few things can be perfect so my idea of perfect includes room for human error. Perfect means that it’s the best that I (or my team) can do. Anytime someone on my team or I have a misstep, I remind us that whatever mistake we made, can be fixed. The only real mistake is not learning from what went wrong and using that information to improve.

What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

The hardest part about being a perfectionist is the feeling I get after something goes wrong. It’s hard to learn how to not beat yourself up, but instead to apologize and learn from the experience. I’ll never forget the emotional battering that I gave myself after I sent out an email to 30,000 people about one of our events and somehow (even after checking the email three times!) forgot to add the date for the event. When I calmed down, I quickly crafted a correction and sent it out and the problem was solved. It felt so huge right when it happened, but I solved it in just a few minutes.

From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?

Perfectionism is actually just a symptom of a deeper underlying issue. Think of perfectionism as the tip of the iceberg, it’s the thing that you know is holding you back from what you want. Maybe it leads you to spend way too much time researching or not taking action because you’re scared that you’ll do the wrong thing. The real problem is not the perfectionism itself, but rather what’s behind it — the deeper emotional issue that makes you feel like making a mistake is detrimental to your personhood. For most people, it’s that feeling that they aren’t enough. For a perfectionist to truly get unstuck, they need to realize that they deserve success because they are enough and that missteps don’t mean they’re a failure, they mean they’re a human being and they took a risk.

Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You are enough, exactly as you are, right now in this moment and always. As I said, this one is huge for me. Realizing that I am enough has helped me get better at admitting when I’m wrong and not over-checking things. The work that you’ll do to internalize the idea that you are enough and that you deserve everything, I mean EVERY SINGLE THING that’s on your list of bold, beautiful goals is some of the most important work you’ll do in your life and, without it, everything you want will stay as something that you want instead of something that you have.
  2. Nothing in this world is perfect. If you’ve ever really stared at your face or anyone else’s you’ve probably noticed that faces are not symmetrical. We all have a small eye and one side of your mouth turns down a bit more or is smaller. Your face (and everyone else’s faces on the planet) is not perfect. By our very nature, we’re imperfect, but yet we still find each other beautiful. We have crushes. We fall in love. We pine for each other. We create paintings and great pieces of art to celebrate the beauty of imperfect humans.
  3. Imperfections not only make you human, but they make you more interesting. Remember in that movie Being John Malkovich when the world was filled with John Malkovichs? No matter how cool and interesting and talented someone is, I would never want to be in a world with just a bunch of duplicates of one person. The differences between us, many of which can be seen as imperfections, are what draw us to each other. These are things that make us vulnerable and sharing our vulnerabilities creates connection and connection, well connection is the heart of the human experience.
  4. The greatest lessons you can learn that will move you towards your highest potential will not come from a book, but will come from your own experiences and unless you’re willing to make mistakes, you won’t have the experiences that you need. If I had never left graduate school in my last semester, a few months before graduation, to pursue a life in the arts, I would have never had the privilege of helping so many creatives get the confidence and skills to make a living doing what they love. That huge risk had lots of rough spots, but it led me to my purpose of helping others create lives that they love.
  5. Even if you expect yourself to be perfect, no one else does. We are usually our own toughest critics. We notice the things that we could have done better, even the minute detail that someone else would never know unless we pointed it out to them. Remember that no one is thinking about you and judging you as much as you are about yourself.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would love to lead a goal-getting movement to give people the tools, mindset and support that they need to make those “wake you up in the middle night” dreams into reality. Most people don’t get past the stage where they know there’s something more for them, but if they don’t know exactly what it is or how to start going after it, they let it stagnate in their minds. I want to help everyone see that the only thing standing between them and their goals is the understanding that they can do it, by creating a plan and having guidance and accountability. This is why I created our newest event, the at-home, summer camp-themed, experience in goal-getting for creatives called Camp Dear Handmade Life.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I would love to have lunch with Gay Hendricks. His books have helped me get a new perspective on my life and myself and have helped catapult me towards my mission and message. I would love to chat with Gay, but more than that, I’d love to buy him a big fancy lunch to thank him for everything he’s given me with his wisdom.

How can our readers follow you online?

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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