Stop apologizing for imperfections

Never apologize.
No excuses.
No explanations.

—Julia Child in Julie & Julia

We all know how I feel about excuses. I wrote a whole book to help you get past excuses for  not promoting your art. So let’s deal with the rest of this quote.

Nancy Ortenstone, The Sun Remembers. 48 x 36 inches. ©The Artist

Nancy Ortenstone, The Sun Remembers. 48 x 36 inches. ©The Artist

You might think the first part is off base and that you should apologize for things you have done wrong. You’d be right. You absolutely should!

But the context of this quote was Julia talking about apologizing for imperfect food preparation. It’s akin to showing your art to someone and apologizing for the framing. Or inviting people to see your website, but apologizing because it’s not quite what you’d like for it to be.  Stop and think again before apologizing for these imperfections.

My husband says I’m frequently apologizing to dinner guests for my imperfect food preparation. He’s right that this is bad form. The guests think I did less than my best for them and I focus on what’s not there instead of what is there. Mostly, everyone would be more than happy with the yummy food. They would never know what I know if I didn’t tell them. Their minds would never go to what it could have been.

You look less self-confident when you apologize for everything you do that is imperfect. I think that’s what Julia is trying to get at with this quote.

Don’t dwell on it and call attention to it!
Accept that it is what it is or fix it, redo it, move on.

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16 comments to Stop apologizing for imperfections

  • Amen!
    Never say, “its nothing” when someone speaks highly of your work – you just diminished THEM, and their opinion. A simple thank you is all that’s required. My husband & I, both news photographers, learned this from the oh so awesome cartoonist Jim Borgman, whom we miss dearly at our newspaper. He is now devoted to Zits (and his family).

  • Alyson is so right on this one.

    Of course our work could always be better- no doubt Rembrandt and Winslow Homer felt this way too. If an artist isn’t frequently dissatisfied how can they ever grow? But asking the public to grasp the all the ins and outs of the artist’s inner struggle is just asking too much. Keep it simple- when you present to the public underline the confident side of your feelings. As we’ve all seen too often, this is simple to say but hard to do. Just choosing not to share all your self doubt doesn’t mean you’re going to come off as an arrogant twit. One thing that helped me with this all years ago was to go to opening receptions for well-known artists I admired and to eavesdrop on what they said to people. I learned it is possible to be proud of one’s work in a graceful and gracious way.

  • In one of his long online essays, Stephen Fry relates how John Cleese taught him to stop apologising:

    It’s perhaps a very English thing to find it hard to accept kind words about oneself. If anyone praised me in my early days as a comedy performer I would say, “Oh, nonsense. Shut up. No really, I was dreadful.” I remember going through this red-faced shuffle in the presence of the mighty John Cleese who upbraided me the moment we were alone. ‘You genuinely think you’re being polite and modest, don’t you?’ ‘Well, you know …’ ‘Don’t you see that when someone hears their compliments contradicted they naturally assume that you must think them a fool? Suppose you went up to a pianist after a recital and told him how much you had enjoyed his performance and he replied, “rubbish, I was awful!” You would go away thinking you were a poor judge of musicianship and that he thought you an idiot.’ ‘Yes, but I can’t agree with someone if they praise me, that would sound so cocky. And anyway, suppose I do think I was awful?’ (which most of the time performers do think of themselves, of course.) ‘It’s so simple. You just say thank you. You just thank them. How hard is that?’
    From http://www.stephenfry.com/2007/09/27/let-fame/9/

    I think of this every time I struggle with this situation and try to remember to just smile and say thank you, instead of apologising, pointing out my many shortcomings or exhibiting false modesty.

  • So true! Most people would never even know about the imperfection had it not been pointed out.

  • The things that we, the maker, perceive as ‘faults’ are usually invisible to the viewer. It helps, I think, if you can put whatever it is aside for a month or two before showing it to anyone…by that time, you may well be able to see the piece for what it is, rather than what you think it should be. There is a big difference.

  • I like that you have brought this up and I know both sides of the coin. It’s made me think about the people that I’ve encounter with the No Apologizes system. To me they seem very confident about them self and calm. Something again to work towards… Good topic.
    ~v~Laura

  • I love Kirsty’s story! I’ve often told people that, when they refuse to accept a compliment to me it is as though they are insulting or questioning my judgement.

    To that end, I have done my own self reflection and come to realize that the absolute best response when someone pays you a compliment, whether you personally feel it was deserving or not, is to say,
    “Thank you”

  • This is just a follow on to yesterday’s topic – criticism. It’s a way (a bad way mind you) to deflect any criticism we think MIGHT be forthcoming. If we can get in there first with an apology or put ourselves down – then we think the other person can’t, we’ve beaten them to it.

    We are always so afraid to have others think badly about us . Most of the time when we are criticized it is not about us, but about the one that is doing the criticizing.

  • Walter Hawn

    This happens: The viewer sees something I think of as faulty and *praises* it as fine, even exemplary.

    Conversely, something I might have labored long and mightily over is completely unnoticed.

    Is it permissible to roar “A-a-a-r-r-r-g-g-gh!” softly, within oneself, at those moments?

  • Excellent post, Alyson. I have a friend who constantly apologizes for, well, nearly everything she does. It’s actually tedious for the rest of us to have to support her constantly.
    It’s not arrogant to not apologize. It just says that you’re comfortable with, or at least able to accept the imperfections of whatever you’re sharing. And nothing we share is ever perfect.
    Your readers are spot on. A simple ‘thank you’ is lovely to hear, and all that needs to be said.

  • jeri

    Such a timely topic for me. Yesterday I returned from my first visit to the Art Institute in Chicago. I spent 3 days there and did not see all of what was offered, but came away exhausted and uplifted in my journey as an artist. I immediately noticed the “mistakes” in the master pieces, the uneven line, the slight run of paint from one area to the next, and not one of those “mistakes” marred the art or its impact of the piece. I am one who is always too focused on the details of my work to really see the impact of the overall piece, and am never satisfied or happy with the end result, constantly apologizing. Did my composition work, is there balance, etc…I see that this line is alittle uneven, this color should have been a touch brighter, etc…..well not anymore. Having seen, truly seen the pieces that were hanging in the Art Institute I know I am missing the greater point of my art by obsessing on the details. I now vow to do my best with each piece, see the “flaws” for what they truly are, a learning expericence and a very human part of the work, and to move on to the next piece stronger and a better artist for the experience.

  • Patricia and Jeri’s comments are perfect. I have two close relatives who fit Patricia’s description and they are exhausting to be around. Jeri is right to point out the great paintings aren’t the “perfect” paintings. All of us succumb to the desire to have perfect heroes. Rembrandt, one of mine, wasn’t.

  • This is great advice! All apologizing does is call attention to faults that no one else would even notice. We are our own worst critics and the smallest of mistakes can seem so obvious, but most of the time other people don’t see these things. My house isn’t always the tidiest, but I never apologize for it. It is what it is and I’m okay with that. It’s the same with art; you should never have to apologize for your work!

  • recent conversation: neighbour:” Hi! I went to your website, & I love your work!” me: “Thank you, I love my work too!” them:” When is your next show?” me:” I’m in a charity thing Oct. 22nd”…them:”send me the link…” and they’re coming!

  • Malinda: Saying “thank you” without putting on an air of modesty or, worse, self-degradation is a learning process. But you’re absolutely right. It’s gotta be done.

    Philip: I love the idea of eavesdropping! I may have to steal that. Sounds like a blog post or newsletter in itself.

    Kirsty: We’d also think, “Wow! I just wasted my money on a recital that the pianist thought was way below par.” Not good.

    Marion: Yes, the advantage of time would be helpful. Not always an option, but it’s nice when it’s available.

    Fiona: Yes, I suppose criticism (or deflecting it before it’s even given) could be a reason for apologizing when it’s not necessary.

    Walter: With time, I think you notice how people look at things very differently. We all bring our own experiences to art. So, the trick is to learn to be more Zen about it and go with the flow. I suppose this is a learned response and that a silent AARGH would be okay to let off some steam.

    Jeri: Another way to look at those imperfect paintings are that the artist accepted his/her accident. “It may not have been intentional, but it’s there and it doesn’t look so bad. Besides, it’s this area over here that is more important. I’ll spend my time on it instead of worrying about that.”

    Sari: Yippee! Another fan!

  • I love this post. I’ve felt this way for awhile now. Thanks for verbalizing it the way you have, and a great quote from Julia Child!
    – Eric