Perfection Is Not The Goal


A few days ago I listened to a podcast conversation with Thomas Curran, author of The Perfection Trap. In his book, Curran cautions against striving for more at all costs and argues for the “power of good enough”, as the subtitle puts it. As I listened, it reminded me of a story I came across a few years ago.

As the story goes, a university professor of film photography announced on the first day of class that he would divide his class into two groups. The group on the left would be graded on quantity while the group on the right would be graded on quality. This meant that the individuals in the quantity group had to go out and shoot as many photos as possible. At the end of the semester, a score would be assigned based on how many photos taken by each individual in the group. 100 photos would score an A, 90 photos would score a B, 80 photos would score a C, and so on. However, those in the quality group would be graded on the technical excellence of a single photograph. In essence, they only needed to produce one photo during the semester. A perfect or near-perfect photo would score an A, and the grades would decline according to the quality of the photograph.

The expectation was that the students tasked with focusing on quality would produce the best photos. Well, that didn't happen, because if it did, this story wouldn’t be notable, would it? At the end of the semester, the professor found that the best photos were produced by those in the quantity group, which as we’ve established, was surprising at first, but it makes sense on further examination. During the semester, the students in the quantity group were free to experiment with aspects of their photography techniques – lighting, composition, and various methods – and this allowed them to learn from their mistakes and iterate. In the process of capturing all those photos, they improved their techniques and honed their skills. Conversely, the students in the quality group were bogged down with the idea of creating the single, best photograph. They probably speculated on what would make the best photo, what would result in the highest quality, what not to do to shoot low-quality photographs, and so on, but in doing all this speculating, they did little actual photography in comparison, and thus had little to show for their efforts. 

You’ve probably heard or read this story a few times, probably in a few different forms. You might recognise it from James Clear’s Atomic Habits, or from David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear, with ceramics used instead of photographs in the latter. It might interest you to know that the story is grounded in real-world events, and the film photography professor in question was Jerry Uelsmann at the University of Florida. What is more interesting to me, and pertinent to this post, is why my mind took the leap from Curran's conversation about perfectionism to Uelsmann's story about quality vs. quantity. At first, it seemed my mind had connected two seemingly disparate ideas, until I realised they were not as disparate as I'd first thought. 

I've been thinking about perfectionism a lot recently, and I’ve even written about it on this blog, so it occurred to me as I searched my mind for the missing link, that Uelsmann's story is just another cautionary tale on the dangers of perfectionism. There could very well be a host of factors that might explain and/or interpret the outcome in the story, but one way to put it is that the mindset which drives us to obsessively strive for perfection might actually prevent us from reaching our goals.

For instance, every artist (and possibly every person) knows someone who keeps working on a song or painting or novel for years on end, while refraining from showing the work in progress to anyone. The usual justification for this behaviour is that the work isn’t done, it isn't ready, it’ll all make sense when it’s finished. If you don’t know anyone who does this, chances are you’re that person. I know I used to be that person, and I still find myself acting like that person from time to time.

But what can we do about this? There probably isn't one solution or antidote, or one big change that'll fix everything. Rather, it's more like a combination of lots of small changes, and it begins with a shift in attitude, philosophy, and outlook. 

One of these changes requires getting comfortable with sharing works in progress. Austin Kleon writes about it in his book, Show Your Work. We can do this with accountability partners, community groups, and even our loved ones. When you send off a chapter of a rough draft to a friend or play a day-old song at an open mic, you're showing your work, and this creates the possibility of feedback that could spur you on and provide valuable insights into what needs to change, what could make your work better, or whether your work is ready for a wider audience. We have to be willing to deal with a little criticism, to treat it like a bridge that transports us to the other side where progress lies in wait. 

Another is in recognising that we're finite beings with finite resources. We have limited time, so it helps to interrogate ourselves regularly, to ask whether we're making the most of our limited time. I've referred to the economic concept of opportunity cost a few times on this blog, especially as it pertains to time. If you insist on spending all your time "perfecting" one thing, then you do that at the expense of all the other things you could be doing. And let's face it, the mindset that compels you to endlessly strive for perfection is likely to keep you tethered to that singular pursuit. Put another way, it's a vicious cycle. You might as well be running in place on a treadmill, expending all that time and energy and not moving the needle on your progress.

This is the part where I have to offer the disclaimer that this isn’t a call to embrace mediocrity or celebrate complacency. Rather, this approach to creativity and productivity which eschews perfectionism for the sake of it, should provide liberation from the mindset that cripples us and stifles progress. In other words, we still have to do the work. The students in Uelsmann’s quantity group still had to shoot dozens and dozens of photos, analyse them, learn from their mistakes, and improve. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have ended up with the best photographs in the class. It was the freedom to wander and make mistakes, coupled with the growth mindset that enabled them to succeed. Armed with this newfound freedom from the trap of endlessly refining and finetuning work in isolation, we too can pursue our projects, dreams and tasks, safe in the knowledge that perfection is not the goal. 

PS: Just a reminder that my latest single, Feels Like Rain is out now, everywhere. You can listen to it on several platforms. Please share it with a friend, share it with your social networks, and consider subscribing to the newsletter (below), my YouTube channel, or wherever else you listen to music.

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