Death by Perfection

Perfection. It’s a word often associated with high marks, implying you won’t let go before it’s just right. You always deliver top notch. People know they can trust you to make the best. It’s an attitude that shows you are a person having standards. Can’t go wrong if you strive for perfection…

Wait a minute.

Perfection or perfectionism could also mean that you take forever to get anything done, since nothing is good enough. If you are a perfectionist, maybe you aren’t getting much done at all, since there is always room for improvements. Maybe you don’t even try, because you know it’s not going to be perfect anyway.

I remember when I was younger I was living by the idea that it was better to do only three things and get them right from the start than trying a hundred things an maybe getting ten of them halfway right. In retrospect, I see that I was scared of not getting it right, rather than just trying out and see where it would lead. First time I jumped from a 10-meter diving board, I used the whole summer to build up courage to climb the tower. I wouldn’t let myself get up there and have to turn around not daring to do the jump. That would be too embarrassing. So, I used the summer to infuse mental strength in myself—and then did it. It did take the whole summer, though. And it seized my summer to such an extent that I couldn’t enjoy much else.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It’s a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or photographing or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get caught up in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none,” Miles David so correctly stated.

I know the feeling too well. I am out shooting an assignment for some magazine. I won’t let the editor down. I want to deliver perfect images. Instead, I stall my creativity because I am anxious about not being able to make those photos as good as I believe they should be—whatever that really means. I get more and more frustrated when I can’t get anything right or capture any photos that stands out. I keep digging myself deeper and deeper in expectations that just get higher and higher. There is no way out, at least not until I get so angry with myself and in pure frustration am able to let go of any pretentions.

The perfectionist processes and re-processes a photo. Keeps adding layers, keeps juggling settings, tries new filters, adds a detail here and another there. Darkens, brightens. Increase saturation. Decrease contrast. He or she never gets to finish processing the photo. In fact, if he or she would take a birds perspective he or she would see that the photo might just have been better from the start before all the excessive processing.

The perfectionist is never satisfied. The perfectionist never says, “This is pretty good. I think I’ll just move on.” To the perfectionist there is always room for improvements. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it’s ego-centricity. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, take and process a perfect photo.

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again. Don’t get me wrong. This is not an appeal to be sloppy with our creative outlet. We should do our best, but we shouldn’t keep striving for perfection. That may only lead us into a creative block or performance anxiety. Yes, we all want to become better at what we do, but getting better is a process not a finalized result. If you seek perfection, you seek an unattainable goal. As you get better so does your idea of perfection. The stake will always move outside of your reach since everything can always get better.

Instead of seeking perfection, accept that things are as they are. And rather do and risk failure, than wait until you know you can do it to perfection. You may never get started otherwise. And remember, failure is never failure if you look upon it as an opportunity to improve as I wrote in my post Weakness as Potential Strength more than a month ago.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a EOS 5D with a 24-105 mm lens set at 24 mm. It’s a double-exposure merged in Photoshop and then processed in both Lightroom and Photoshop.

101 thoughts on “Death by Perfection

  1. Perfection…reaching it is impossible and boring…I suffered from the desire to reach perfection in what I did and I now realise that the beauty is in the imperfections !! and life becomes a lot simpler and more perfect that way!

  2. Your story about the 10-meter diving board is the perfect metaphor because a creative endeavor can feel just as scary as you stare into the void and face the possibility of failure (or at least a really painful face-splat). But you’re right that we can make ourselves miserable by rehearsing the thing in our minds all summer instead of just getting out there and DOING it, however imperfectly. I will carry this thought with me in the week ahead as I end my six-month photography hiatus. Thank you for being such a wonderful coach, Otto.

    1. It does take courage to creative, either because we are afraid of failure or actually the opposite as well, the idea of success can also be scary. Have fun now when you get back to photographing again. 🙂

  3. Excellent points, but easier said than done, Otto.

    I ruined a perfectly good watercolour painting 20+ years ago, because I kept fiddling around with the clouds in the sky. I went over and over it too many times. In the end, I had to darken the landscape too (to match the sky).

    I was the same with photography in that I made 7-8 shots of each flower during an afternoon walk and I couldn’t decide which angle looked the best. But my eyesight is not good enough to do much photo editing so at least I can refrain from over-editing an image.

    Now, I can never decide which image to post online. Will it be good enough? Will followers like it? So I usually end up sharing too many images in the hope that someone will ‘like’ something.
    Fortunately my B & W blog usually has the one and only shot of the day. There is usually no time to re-shoot an image as the subject has changed in a split second.

    I think many of us, amateur or professional, have much the same thoughts in this era of digital photography. It was probably easier in Ansel Adams day. He had to capture a fair landscape in the first place as there is only so much you can do in the darkroom.

    1. Well, Ansel Adams was a magician in the darkroom and did work on his photos quite a bit, but of course you are right, it’s significantly easier to edit and process images today. Nevertheless, the striving for perfection is the same and has the same negative consequences whether now or in other times. What you point to, that it’s hard to make choices in editing down a certain amount of images, is indeed something a lot of photographers struggle with, whether amateurs og professionals.

  4. I not only agree with you, Otto, this is one lesson I’ve learned. Interestingly, I learned it from varnishing, and it’s helped me tremendously with both writing and photography. I call it “the Rule of Good Enough,” and it’s clearly what you’re talking about. I’ve written about it several times; a paragraph from one of my posts about perfectionism sums it up pretty well:

    “If you’re especially lucky, you’ve already internalized “The Rule of Good Enough.” No matter how glossy, how reflective, how beautifully deep the shine, something — a gnat, a bristle, a patch of dust, a sliver of unvarnished wood – will tempt you toward perfection. Perfection, of course, is illusory. Getting rid of a gnat inevitably leads to the discovery that a determined spider has schlepped across your work. Eliminate the spider tracks, and you’re a sitting duck for errant, floating feathers. Better to look at a job that’s very nearly perfect and say, “That’s good enough.”

    One other thing. You mentioned how perfectionism keeps us from moving on. A full decade ago, I adopted this motto: “Write, and let go.” As soon as I’ve finished and posted one piece, I begin immediately on the next. Otherwise, if a piece is good, I’d spend my time congratulating myself, and if it didn’t meet my standards in some way, I’d spend my time beating myself up.

    It’s rather a good stance toward life in general. I like to think of each day as a hinge between past and future. The trick is to push on the door, and keep going.

    1. Your motto is a good one for any creative endeavour. As is the rule of good enough. You put different and very poignant words to what I am trying to say in my post. Thanks. And yes, the trick is really to push on the door and keep going.

  5. Otto, you touched a very interesting subject, thank you for that. It made me reflect again on achieving perfection in my work. As a little girl I was raised that “being just a girl” I don’t need to push myself too hard, because I will marry anyways. Well that philosophy did not sit well with me, it actually back fired in pushing myself to perfection to exhaustion, just to prove that I’m more than good enough. Now as I’m getting older I finally realized that I don’t need to prove anything more. I’m more relaxed in my professional photography work. By not pushing anymore to be a perfectionist I experience way more spontaneity and creativity and I enjoy giving myself that room. Yet when it comes to the point to please my customers, there is still a little battle within me, how far to go in pleasing their expectations and how far to bring in my personal artistic way as my own perfection, like for example photographing weddings. To my customers surprise they love and appreciate that I leave room for surprise shoots which are at times unplanned.

    1. I think that pushing to perfection is actually taking away some of the spontaneity that makes photos stand out. Like your customers also see. I still think we should push ourselves, not to perfection, but rather to expand and never stop developing. Hopefully girls today don’t grow up to learn that they don’t have to achieve anything since they will marry anyway.

    2. That sounds so familiar 🙂 I was never told that in so many words but there are a lot of ways to communicate that idea to a receptive young girl, hungry for life… It turned me into some sort of a rebel in my own way – but there are certainly chunks of it you drag along the rest of your life anyway, even by going the opposite direction with insistence… Maybe the reason I never could decide to go pro with photography… and a few other things? The moment I know there are external expectations attached to something, things (still, at times!…) start going haywire… 😀 A hard wall to jump over… 😉 You learn by jumping anyway – but it seems an ‘on board’ property that can rear its head when you least expect it… 🙂

      1. I like to go against what is expected, too. Sometimes stupidly I do the opposite just for that reason, even though I know it’s against my own interests. Turning rebel I think is good—at from time to time.

  6. How familiar I am with this struggle. Well stated. Nothing will ever be “perfect.” We must allow ourselves to move forward and accept “good enough,” as Alli so aptly stated.

  7. Very thought provoking Otto. I agree with you that “failure is never failure if you look upon it as an opportunity to improve”. I always say something similar to my kids. It’s always better to get something finished and be satisfied with it. Then move on.

  8. A very good article and one we can all learn from. It reminds me of a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever Tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”. We learn far more from our mistakes than we do from our successes

  9. A boss called me a perfectionist and I said “But I’m so much better than I used to be!” I’m still working on it. There’s an invisible line between pursuing excellence and going too far and draining the vitality of the work and our own energy. Your photo makes me think of leprachauns and sprites. There’s magic when we get things just right.

  10. I think the comment, “It’s good enough, move on” is probably the best. It is easy to get caught in the trap of a little more here, or there. I get upset if I miss the shot the most I think. Usually you can’t go back and try again.

  11. Hello Otto,
    ‘Digging myself deeper and deeper in expectations…’. This is a brilliant summary of the point of your excellent post. I totally agree that striving to make it perfect can freeze us into inaction.
    If I were shooting for a magazine…I think I’d be doing exactly the same thing you described.
    ‘Just start’ is a good mantra to have as a take away from your writings here.
    Thank you as always Otto for a piece of inspiration and food for thought 💐✨✨

      1. Oh yes Otto. I worked in a school with teenagers and I always said just the first few lines are the hardest and from then on it comes together but to just start the flow…
        And as I’ve written that I realise how apt your blog name is…🌟
        And you are very welcome too💐🌟

  12. Too often the pursuit for ‘perfection’ results in over working and a consequent loss of vitality and spontaneity. Of course we should always strive to produce the best of which we are capable but ‘perfection’ is not an absolute quality. We determine our own expectations.

  13. A very good and thought provoking message, Otto! I had to chuckle a couple of times reading your post. Seems like I have a stretch to go before I can embrace imperfections and celebrate them. 😉
    There’s big sign on a country lane in Norfolk and I always have to smile when I pass it:
    The best way to get ahead is to get started.

    1. I don’t think one have to go with imperfection when one doesn’t want to strive for perfection. Well, imperfections have their value, too, but in a different meaning. I would want to have a sign like the one in Norfork over my computer!

  14. So true! And often our idea of perfection comes from comparing our work to someone else’s, which too often gives us a false impression of what our work should look like, and makes us feel inferior. A supervisor once told me “If you never make a mistake, it just means you aren’t doing anything.” You could also say “…you’re not learning anything.” Great post!

  15. this is a very great post on the subject… perfection is knowing that what we do will NEVER be good enought… perfect words 🙂 i was raised by a hard mother, who would never give me a kind word, thus the birth of a perfectionist… and i even pushed myself so hard with physics that i had mini strokes that wiped out physics from my knowledge… perfectionism will steal who you are and who you want to be.

    ps. i love the clone stamped WONDER of a photo!! goes ‘perfectly’ with what you wrote 🙂

      1. oh i can speak on that particular subject for a while… it ruined my health, and my life… now my little niece, who is only 16, announces PROUDLY that she is a perfectionist, and i quake with fear for her… because it will take her years to realize that being a perfectionist makes you LESS of a person, rather than more or better.

  16. Excellent blog. I think many of us have had jobs where being a perfectionist was not an option, you actually had to be as lives depended upon it. This attitude can often be transferred to our creative endeavors, and as you state, it is not a necessary to have that level of exactness.

  17. Very good words, Otto, and to be taken to heart. Good enough, without the dose of perfection, is usually enough. I had a supervisor who wanted perfection, because he strove to be ‘perfect’ in everything, and he ran into a lot of frustration because we couldn’t deliver perfection. Fortunately, he told us beforehand of this and asked us to tell him to back off when something was good enough, which we did with relish. Of course, perfection (or as near to it as possible) is required for life threatening situations but generally good enough is fine in other areas.

  18. You’ve written a good essay about perfectionism. Sometimes I’ve looked back at a photograph I edited in a certain way just the day before, and now it seems to need more contrast, or more or less exposure, or some other adjustment. In other words, and following the thought of Heraclitus, even from one day to the next my sensibilities change, and it’s not quite the same person doing the editing. At a given moment I’ve also sometimes realized that I can process a photograph in rather different ways and like both of them.

    1. I think most photographer experience the same as you. For that very reason it’s a good idea to return to old photographs, to see if you would have processed them differently today. Not to make them perfect, but just different.

  19. This really strikes home. I can sit paralyzed in front of my computer, dithering forever over whether to crop an image an eighth of an inch to the left or right. I once read that “Perfect is the enemy of done.” For me, Perfect is often the enemy of even beginning.

  20. Oh boy … I can relate. Have you been spying on me? 🙂 In art school I would often let the fear of failure get the best of me … especially in life drawing. I’d be so tense nothing good could happen. Nowadays I have enough confidence in my photography skills to be productive but I still won’t show my images unless I know I’ve made them as good as I can. Being proud of them is important to me.

    1. I don’t think being neither proud of one’s photo or trying to make the best out of them, is bad. On the contrary. But it’s this need for perfection that can kill – and yes, fear of failure.

  21. Consider a beautiful sunset, independent of editing. While you’re there, it seems perfect. Let’s say the next night there’s another beautiful sunset, completely different, equally perfect.

    What is perfection, really? Perhaps more attitude than reality?

  22. A great reminder, and well presented! I’ve been caught by the urge for perfection at various times but I think it’s less and less a problem as I get older. And what really broke me was giving birth! 😉 That was messy! I was not in control, and the desire for perfection relates so strongly to being in control. I hope you have an imperfectly great weekend, Otto! 🙂

    1. I did have an imperfectly great weekend. Didn’t do anything I had planned. Instead I did a lot of fun stuff, like rolling around in snow and being social. I hope you will have an equally imperfectly great week, Lynn.

      1. Metaphoric, no one can build a temple everyday. If it is not sand-temple, where the water flush it away and you begin again next day.:)
        Build a new temple can mental change?!

  23. So true, never being too much of a perfectionist, but had to endure many times, people’s lateness for their habit of trying to do a perfect job, at work.
    So I know exactly what you mean, projects that needed to be done, stop for hours, and sometimes days on end! 🙂

  24. Another insightful post, Otto.
    I used to be like this, but then realized it was causing me to dislike what I loved so much.
    Once I recognized it, the rest was really quite simple, and I’ve never looked back.
    Thank you, my friend!

  25. Your 10-meter diving board story reminded me of this Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'”

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