Being Perfect Doesn't Make Life Better

Trying to be perfect on any level is the kind of thing that can kill you

Sitting in front of my computer, looking at an image I’ve been editing for the past three hours already, I’m reminded of those times not too terribly long ago it seems, when I could process at least 20, sometimes as much as 40 or more images in a day, especially if those images were shot outdoors. For a couple of dozen years, I was of the opinion that if the photograph wasn’t near-perfect when it came out of the camera, that it wasn’t going to be made perfect in editing. Excessive post-production was the “wrong” way to work with pictures.

What happened? How did I get to this point where processing is a stressful and time-consuming event that makes my blood pressure rise and causes me to be intolerant toward anything disrupting my concentration? My concept of perfection.

When digital imaging was younger, only the most high-end monitors, which I could never afford, were capable of showing the nasty little details hidden in an image. Only when I pulled a print did I see the slight variations in shades of black or the digital noise hidden in a shadow. Since I wasn’t exhibiting during those years, those details were less important. Now, I see every flaw before I ever start and I have to fix them, or at least try. Instead of processing 20 images in a day, it’s a stretch if I can process 20 images in a week.

I’m rarely satisfied because my definition of what is “perfect” has changed. I’m much more strict with myself in minding the details and while that might sound like a good thing, it too easily leads to analysis paralysis and slows the process to the point of frustration. I’m not happy, my family isn’t happy, and dinner is too often either burned or late.

The rub here is that for 99.8 percent of people looking at my photos, they can’t tell the difference between how the image looked after 15 minutes of editing versus how it looks three hours of editing. So why all the fuss? I’m possessed by the ego-centric opinion that I need to impress that 0.2 percent that whips out a loupe and looks at the detail. These are people who care less about the general aesthetic value of a photograph and more about whether there is a .001° variance in the horizon between the left and right side of the picture. They’re not going to actually buy the image, but they will happily list all it’s flaws, potentially damaging my reputation as a photographer. Therefore, I need to be as close to perfect as possible.

This drive for perfection is ridiculous, though, and it’s not making anyone’s life better. The person who might ultimately buy an image is typically more concerned with the emotion communicated through the image. If a picture makes them feel better or represents something that makes them happy or explores a topic they find interesting, then the only question is where they’re going to hang it, not whether the colors are Pantone-accurate. I spend untold hours fussing over matters that, at the end of the day, don’t make anyone happier or satisfied. 

If I know this and am aware of the dent it’s making in the quality of my life, then why in the world do I continue doing it? Because I live in a society where if something isn’t perfect then obviously I didn’t do my best and we should all, always, do our best. This philosophy isn’t true only in photography but in almost every aspect of creativity and/or public service possible. 

For example, my 10-year-old loves to watch cooking shows. He’ll sit and binge the Great British Bakeoff or any variation of Hell’s Kitchen that he can find. On the surface, it seems cute. He has an interest in cooking and the shows seemingly encourage that interest. However, they have also changed his expectation for the quality of food served at dinner. 

“Dad, I’m not sure you used enough milk in the mac and cheese, it feels a bit dry,” he’s likely to say, or, “Did you marinate this chicken? It isn’t tender at all and I’m having trouble chewing.” 

Again, there’s humor in the seriousness with which this little person is critiquing my cooking. At the same time, however, while I quickly remind him I’m not running a four-star restaurant and if he doesn’t like it he can start cooking his own mac and cheese (which he’s perfectly capable of doing), this sense that he is somehow owed perfection on his plate impacts everyone’s quality of life. He’s not satisfied with his food because he’s sure it could be better. The person preparing the food is frustrated because they thought they had done a good job.

The strive for and expectation of perfection in places where it’s not a life-and-death matter prevents all of us from living a better, more relaxed, less stroke-inducing, heart attack-free life. The whole concept of “deserving” perfection has shifted dramatically with the advent of social media and we are, as a group and often as individuals, less happy because of it.

One of the most frequent consequences of this need for perfection is that it causes us to second-guess our own decisions. I sit in front of my monitor wondering if I should have adjusted the tone differently. The chef at the diner stands at the stove wondering if they should add a dash more salt (please, no). The police officer hesitates before pulling the trigger. 

In the case of the police officer, of course, that second-guessing may either save an innocent life or cost the officer their own life. What’s best and appropriate depends on the specific situation. Most of us are not in such high-pressure life-or-death situations yet we still treat what we’re doing as if it were that important. We want the things that matter most to us to be perfect and we’ll second-guess ourselves eternally if we’re not sure.

Not everyone actually looks for perfection in everything they do. Instead, there are a few areas they consider critical and focus on those. One look at the clutter on my desk (and just about everywhere else) defines me as one of those people. Others, however, sweat every little detail. One mother in a parenting group on Facebook asked which pillow was best for her five-year-old son. Obviously, the first question is likely to be whether the child has allergies, a respiratory condition, or spine issues because those are conditions that might influence one’s decision. However, this child had none of those. The correct answer would seem to be, “pick one.” Yet, this mom, not wanting to short-change her child, was wanting the “perfect” pillow for her precious offspring. Chances are high she worries just as much about the toys the child has, the clothes they wear, and I can only imagine the stress that comes with mealtime. 

Why is this worth our discussion? Because all the stress that comes from trying to be perfect is not making our lives any better. In fact, there are a number of ways in which our quest for perfection could have an alarmingly negative effect.

In a 2016 study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill looks carefully at the effects of perfectionism and is especially concerned with what they call Socially Prescribed Perfectionism. They define that state as, “[believing] their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval.” The results are anxiety, depression, and excessively high rates of suicidal ideation. In fact, there are multiple studies that link suicide and perfectionism. In people under 25, nearly 70 of suicides are related to an overall feeling that nothing they do is “good enough.” 

Okay, that’s a bit severe. There are other negative effects, though. Curran and Hill take a hard poke at parenting, specifically. 

Foremost, there is evidence that recent generations of parents are responding to pressure by spending far more time with their children on academic activities. This trend sits alongside a reduction in the amount of time parents report spending with their children doing other activities such as leisure or hobbies. Since the early 1990s, mothers in the United States have reallocated over 9 hr per week from leisure time to childcare, including 2 additional hours per week afforded specifically to education (Ramey & Ramey, 2010). Subsequent analyses show that this reallocation is correlated with a period in which competition to get into college has increased—a trend economists Ramey and Ramey (2010) have termed the rug rat race.

In their conclusion, Curran and Hill draw a direct link between Socially Prescribed Perfectionism and psychopathology. “… perfectionists have an excessive need for others approval, they feel socially disconnected and such alienation renders them susceptible to profound psychological turmoil.” In short, our need to be perfect is driving us crazy.

This is on top of the medical consequences of stress that have been evident well over 50 years— you know, the whole high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke combo. This is not new or mysterious information. We all know that stress is a killer yet we seem to think that somehow we are immune because our work or whatever we’re doing is extremely important. News flash: your body doesn’t really care how important you think something is when the BP goes over 180 bad things start happening. 

Perfectionism and relationships don’t get along well, either. Perfectionists not only have unreasonably high expectations for what they do, they expect that same level of commitment from their partners, also. We don’t understand why they don’t have the same dedication to the same things we’re stressing about. Perfectionists also have severe self-esteem issues that can tank a relationship from the very beginning. Intimacy is often limited. Perfectionists are often referred to as “emotionally unavailable.” As much as anything, trying to live with a perfectionist is exhausting. Given all those negative aspects, are we genuinely surprised when people back away from us?

To get off the hump of indecision or past the time blockade of perfection, there are a number of people beginning to advocate something called “MFD,” or Mostly Fine Decisions. The concept is that you’re not failing to do your best but accepting a compromise in your ideal in order to move forward. I know, it sounds like cheating, doesn’t it? Lower your standards in order to facilitate progress. Yet, if we’ve been arguing with ourselves for minutes, or hours, or weeks, over minute detail, isn’t it time to move on?

A recent article that appeared in Fast Company recommends writing down the problem (briefly), consider how much time you’ve spent on the matter, consider the worst possible consequence to come from making a decision, then deciding what “good enough” might be. The more insignificant the consequences, the more we can likely back off that ideal and find a more acceptable state and move on.

Sure, that solution sounds simple enough but can we put it into practice? Personally, I’d get stuck writing down the problem. I’m at roughly 1,800 words at this point. That’s not helping the situation at all. In fact, it’s prolonging it. How much time spent on the problem dovetails into the whole writing-it-down issue because that’s where a lot of time has gone. What I write has to be as perfect as the solution to the problem itself, so already the solution has magnified the problem without solving anything. 

Consider the worst possible consequence? That leads to daydreaming and procrastination. Few creatives are going to have any difficulty dreaming up disastrous consequences. For example, on any given set of images, my thought pattern runs something like this:

  • If the images aren’t perfect they’ll never work with me again
  • If they never work with me again, they’ll likely tell other models to not work with me either.
  • They might even complain about me on Facebook.
  • If they post something negative on Facebook then that increases the chance that even non-model people might not like me.
  • The more people who don’t like me the more difficult it is to find a place to hang the work.
  • If the work isn’t hung it isn’t likely to sell. 
  • If the work doesn’t sell I’ll go broke.
  • If I go broke I can’t eat.
  • I’ll die cold, hungry, and alone, clutching to a camera I no longer use.

Never mind the fact that there are remedies for every one of those steps. In my brain, dying is always the worst possible consequence for not getting a set of images just right. Of course, that fear isn’t the least bit realistic, but there have been points in the past where the correlation was more direct and that’s enough to keep that fear alive.

What’s needed is a solution that is perhaps a little more Dudeist in design, something that, at its core, has a less intense and more laid back approach to life. If the solution is too detailed or too involved it doesn’t fix the problem of perfectionism but instead compounds it.  Perhaps what we need is a plan that looks more like the following not-perfect diagram.

What I think many of us struggle with is the fact that there is so much we can’t control, we want what we can control to be perfect. In perfection, we look for self-worth and praise, we hinge our definition of success on the approval of others. This drives us to a point of madness as we try to meet a level of expectation that is not only unreasonable but also inherently unhealthy. 

Then along come the distractions: the person who stops by “just to chat” and ends up taking two hours of your day, the meeting that has to take place right now, the children running through the house screaming, the cats knocking things off shelves and the inevitable sound of breakage, the neighbor who is convinced that using his leaf blower is somehow making the world better (it’s not; leaf blowers are evil). Even on the best of days, those are the time-wasters that try our patience. When we’re involved in something we think requires perfection, however, that frustration with the disturbance is magnified by an order related to the amount of time we have before our project is due. The less time we think we have, the greater the likelihood we are going to lash out at someone in inappropriate ways.

The chart above doesn’t solve those problems, but it does hold the potential to help up better prioritize what things in our life need a touch of perfection and what doesn’t. Yes, there are some instances where we need to do our absolute best. At the same time, we overinflate the value of much of what we do. The chart helps us focus. Is someone going to die? Is it going to cost more than your rent? Is it going to damage a valuable relationship? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then perfection and the pressure it brings is likely necessary. Otherwise, chill dude. Back off the intensity. 

Another tactic is to avoid situations where perfection is necessary. If we don’t put ourselves in those situations where expectations are impossibly high then we don’t have the pressure of performing at a level that is detrimental. If one has difficulty with high-pressure situations then perhaps medicine or public safety aren’t the best fields of occupation for one to consider. If there’s not enough time to complete an art piece to an acceptable level of quality, don’t start; wait until your schedule is a little less hectic. 

Of course, wouldn’t you know it, as I’m writing that last paragraph I get an email letting me know that a deadline has been moved up from December to NOW. Gee, thanks. Like I needed more pressure. Again, I’m back looking at the chart, reconsidering how important this project is and the consequences for letting that deadline slide.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes,

A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.

Later, he adds,

Rushing into action, you fail.
Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion,
you ruin what was almost ripe.
Therefore the Master takes action
by letting things take their course.
He remains as calm at the end
as at the beginning.
He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.
What he desires is non-desire;
what he learns is to unlearn.
He simply reminds people
of who they have always been.

On the count of three, everyone give a giant, exhausted sigh. Writing and reading these things is easy. On a purely intellectual level, the only reason for arguing against backing off perfection is because we enjoy the argument. We instinctively know that putting the pressure of perfection on ourselves is not healthy. We are diminishing the quality of our lives when we agree to stipulations that we know are going to cause us a measure of pain and/or angst.

Yet, moving from theory to reality is the biggest challenge, isn’t it? We say we want to relax then sit on the beach using our smartphones to send messages back to the office. I’ll say I’m going to take an afternoon off then grab the camera or the laptop or pages needing editing as I walk out the door. I’ll look at an image and say, “I’ll just fix this one little detail,” but then I’m still “fixing” two hours later. 

Guess what: We don’t have to be perfect and dumping perfection. It’s okay that our path toward a less intense approach to life and work wanders and meanders and sometimes hits a pothole. That’s part of the journey. Our insistence that if we’re going to be less perfect that we have to back off everything right this moment and never seek perfection again ends up ironically imposing perfection on our quest to be less perfect. 

The Tao Te Ching again states:

Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Big, deep breath. I already know I’m not going to be good at this. Even as I’m writing, I’m thinking of the stack of images I need to process and the others I still need to schedule and shoot. Each one, in my mind, needs to be perfect, or some reasonable facsimile thereof. I’m also watching my word count for this article and wondering if I’m missing something because a mere 3,000 words feel too short to have adequately, perfectly, covered the topic of dealing with perfection. 

Sigh.

“The world belongs to those who let go.”

You’re intelligent. You understand the point. We’re done. Let’s go bowling. 

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