The Curse of Perfectionism

Seinen er en levende vannåre gjennom Paris

I used to believe in perfectionism. Nothing could ever be good enough. And, yes, whatever I did was pretty good. But what I didn’t realize back then is how limiting the need for everything to be perfect was for my creativity. I started to push the threshold so sky high that it was impossible to reach it. So instead of reaching for the sky, I inhibited myself and didn’t even get up above the ground. My creativity stagnated. I didn’t create because I felt it wouldn’t be good enough anyway.

Perfectionism can be a curse. It can immobilize yourself and it can make what should be fun and exciting to do – like creative endeavours – into a stressful chore. The result may be that you are sabotaging yourself by raising the standards unrealistically high. You may make yourself captive to judgments of others or, even more likely, to your own relentless self-evaluation. In the end there is no joy left in the process because there is so much pressure, comparison, judgment, and unrealistic thinking involved. Even when something is well received by others, you still feel that’s not good enough. You focus almost exclusively on what is wrong, ignoring what is going right. What more is you inhibit yourself from playing and experimenting – and thus from developing yourself. Instead of become better at what you do, you become worse, – quite the opposite of your intentions.

I used to think that I’d rather do three things only – and do them perfect, than do one hundred things with only ten of them being right. Today I see that ten is more than three, even when I by then have produced ninety «failures» to get to those ten. What more is – which I didn’t realize back then – is that «failures» are only failures if I let them be so. In fact they are a springboard to success. Everything that doesn’t work out the way you have wanted it, is nothing but part of the learning process. If you can leave your pride behind, every «failure» is actually a step in the right direction – one that makes you better and more resilient. In addition, mistakes can even become a new way of seeing your work, an inspiration to do things in a different way. Then suddenly, «failures» aren’t mistakes any more, but actually accomplishments of their own right.

In her book The Muse Is In, Jill Badonsky writes: «Get real. Being perfect just isn’t possible within the realm of being human and those who strive to be perfect often sacrifice joy in the process. If you strive for “amazing” but let go of expectations and are happy with whatever results you reap, then you’re on a healthier and more realistic path.»

So relax your expectations, in fact, purposely lower them so low that you can feel excitedly naughty about showing up to perform you work with reckless abandon. Let the creative process – wherever it brings you – be the reason and motivation in itself. And why not consciously try to produce «bad» work? You will be surprised how genuine and good the result will be, when you let go of the curse of perfectionism. In many ways it’s just like any relationship; if you expect it to be perfect, if you expect your love one to be perfect, you are on a path to disappointment. Take it as it come, be open-minded, let go of expectations, be yourself, and love – and creativity – will flourish.

89 thoughts on “The Curse of Perfectionism

  1. I love this post Otto and the advice contained within it. I think it’s perhaps innate to creative people to strive for perfectionism and I do believe it can certainly inhibit our progress. As children we make mistakes, nobody expects any different. We need to allow ourselves what we had as children, the right to make mistakes and learn from them. I think this is really important in many spheres not least learning a language. Our desire to do it ‘right’ takes us down the path of not trying for fear of looking foolish. We have to make those mistakes, laugh at ourselves and learn from them. Nobody is going to laugh at you in any but a kind way when trying to speak a foreign language but we fear even that and don’t try.
    I hope I can allow myself to make mistakes and get back on that road to learning all we can about whatever we endeavour we undertake.
    Thank you Otto for this timely reminder. Your articles always strike a chord! 🙂

    1. I think your analogue to learning languages are spot on. We do not learn a new language before we dare speak it. But we don’t speak it because we fear that we don’t speak it well enough. But of course we don’t when we are in the process of learning the language. It’s again all about letting go, and not being inhibited by the fact that we will make a fool out ourselves. But fools – as you say, who nobody is going to laugh at but in a kind way. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Adrian.

    2. When I read this post which encourages us to try to take new roads I immediately thought of new languages. I love to learn them despite the fact that I am in no way perfect in those I have been learning so far. But if I go to a certain country and can at least say the most essential words, maybe I can get into contact with the people in that place, whereas without any knowledge that would not be possible at all.
      I thank Otto for his very true words and you for the way you answered them.:):)

      1. Yes, learning languages are inhibited by perfectionism, as Adrian points out. Only by throwing yourself into the language with whatever words you can say, are you able to develop your language skills. Thank you for your comment, Martina.

  2. This is so true. I have a perfectionist father and as I child I had to live up to his standard. It has taken me many years to ‘let go’ and unsurprisingly my creativity is starting to bloom! Thanks for a great post.

  3. Well spoken and so true..striving for perfection is setting yourself an impossible task and making life hell for oneself and those around! Letting go is a relieve.

  4. Thanks, Otto; this is a great reminder. When I started out a few years ago doing a 365, I took each day’s photos for what it was worth and had no expectations but to hopefully get better as the days progressed. Then I started with the “I’m not as good as all the bloggers I follow” and stopped for awhile. Then I restarted again, slowly, after realizing that I make photos for my pleasure and what I see as beautiful, and what anyone else thinks doesn’t really matter. It’s liberating to think like this. Perfectionism is not in my vocabulary

    1. I think most of us need to do the same discovery as you did. Only when we start to create for our own pleasure and for ourselves do we find the necessary freedom to be creative. Thank you for your comment, Angeline.

  5. have you ever heard of the Dao? probably, it says that all this imperfect world is from perfection, but perfection cannot happen in the world, like you can imagine socrates ‘perfect circle’ but as soon as you try to make or draw one, that’s the end of perfect lol… in this world, we have to realize this to appreciate the beautiful ‘good’ circles we have 🙂

    1. It makes complete sense, what you point to, Elaine. The old philosophical dialectic discourse between idea and reality is certainly very relevant. Good circles are as good as they get. 🙂

  6. I am so thankful that I took the time to read this while sifting through my emails, the title caught my attention as I to am a perfectionist. Your words spoke to my heart, a reminder indeed. I should be grateful for this post and will read it often. Thank you

    1. I am glad the post spoke to your heart. Just remember to not be too hard on yourself: Don’t beat yourself up for being imperfect about being uncomfortable with not being perfect. 🙂

  7. Great post yet again, and the struggle with wanting things to be perfect really can steal away joy and creativity ~ and bring on procrastination, as that goal of perfection lies so faraway that why even begin. Your words on how and why it is important to get out of this vicious cycle and train of thought is “perfect” ~ so necessary so as to enjoy the process again and create the magic for yourself. Cheers.

  8. This post got me to start questioning, what is perfect. And everything I came up with could be challenged. Does perfection actually exist? Maybe therein lies the conundrum: the beauty of perfection is its very imperfection.

    1. A good question. Does perfect actually exist? I guess as long as we strive for it, perfection still has an impact on us – whether it really exists or not. Thank you for your comment, Nina.

  9. Well said, Otto! And what is ‘perfect’….who is setting the bar? After all, it’s not an objective concept. We are usually our own worst enemies – I know I am!

  10. An excellent post and reminder. I have found that when I relax and “just” take the photo, I not only have more fun but I usually end up with a better photo! But, then, I have no intention of ever going professional either! 😉

  11. Such a great post. My writing suffered for years because of my desire for perfection, and it is only when I stop wanting it to be perfect that my writer’s block disappears.

  12. You are right, on one side the need of perfectionism is pushing us further, on the other side it is truly limiting creativity. Thanks for your thoughts. And thank you for having visited my website.

  13. We arguably, only learn from our mistakes. So, while I am frustrated by mine, when I remember, I try to focus on what not to do the next time. Another great post and image.

  14. A creative director called me a perfectionist, and I said “but I’m so much better than I used to be!” I’m working on it. I think your post is exactly right about letting the joy into the creating.

  15. I grew up under a perfectionist mother who would yell at me if I threw something in the recently emptied trash! I still have a lot of that in me because as a child I learned nothing I ever did was good enough. It’s something I work on all the time…just let it go Laura, I say to myself. Age is mellowing me like a fine wine! 🙂

  16. I tend to think of perfection rather as I see the horizon – when I reach the point that I thought was the horizon I discover there is more beyond! It is so easy to miss the scenery and the fun of the journey by being too focused on the distant point. I readily admit that I have now reversed the balance. I attach most importance to enjoying what I am doing but do it to the best of my ability – that is, to a level that I feel comfortable with.

    1. I like your analogue with the horizon. Because perfection is indeed that never reachable point. Otherwise you seem to really enjoy the creative process in and of itself. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Louis.

  17. For å si det på godt norsk – en skikkelig god oversettelse klarte jeg ikke på sparket : Ikke la det beste bli det godes fiende.

  18. A very nice post.
    I feel so damn good with imperfection because it does not force me to justify myself why I’m not perfect 🙂


  19. Se con le mie foto avessi aspirato alla perfezione non sarei certamente andata avanti molto a far foto, avrei smesso già da parecchio tempo. Credo che quello che manca nelle mie foto sia proprio la perfezione, però c’è la gioia di catturare con lo scatto qualche cosa che mi ha colpita, che ha attirato la mia attenzione, che mi ha fatto sentire bene!! Ogni tanto mi dico…. ummm quanto sono brutte queste foto, un vero disastro. Beh allora forza, bisogna migliorare e vago sempre con la mia macchina al seguito, ma la perfezione proprio no, non la cerco, sarebbe assurdo perché so che non la troverò mai e se ci provassi perderei tutto l’entusiasmo che fino ad ora mi ha accompagnato nel fare foto.
    Un caro saluto, Pat

    1. E ‘così importante non perdere la gioia di descrivere il processo fotografico. Sì, è (quasi) sempre possibile fare qualcosa di meglio, ma così facendo si può perdere spontaniety e l’autenticità. Conservare l’entusiasmo di andare! Grazie per il tuo commento, Patrizia.

  20. I struggle with it too! For some things more than others. I’ll try to remember your words the next time…:)

  21. Love this post too, Otto. So true. I try to get this through to my children (both are just like I once was – perfectionists). not until now they are getting it – 25 and 23 years old. i’m rather proud of that. I left my perfections only as a 40 year old…and suffered much on the road.

      1. It’s like you say – this is stopping you going in any productive direction. Many students today suffer from it. I had to stop working for three months and my two children unfortunately lost half a year each in school because of this. But, we have all learned how to listen to our body talk…

  22. The pursuit of perfectionism really can bring about paralysis. You’re never going to be happy with your result so in the end you do nothing. Let go, relax and just enjoy the process is the way to go. Good things will come if you don’t burden yourself with the pressure to make everything you create a masterpiece.

    1. Exactly. Those masterpieces will come when you don’t force them. And if they don’t the creative process is still fun in and of its own. Thank for your comment, Mark.

  23. So good, Otto! Through much of my life I’ve held back from trying new things because of the fear that I wouldn’t be able to do them perfectly even during the learning process. How silly is that? Creativity and life itself are so much more fun when I’m able to let go of my perfectionism and just PLAY. Sometimes “good enough” is…enough.

  24. And we are not always the best judge of our work. I know that you were primarily addressing photography, Otto, but I have frequently been surprised when my captions that most amused me got few comments, while ones I felt were less than perfect were a hit!

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