3 Ways Perfectionism Is Dangerous for Creatives

3 Ways Perfectionism Is Dangerous for Creatives

Many creatives are similar in a number of ways; we're self-critical, often riddled with doubt, and take losses hard. However, one commonality is tied up in all of these, and it can be highly detrimental: perfectionism.

Traditionally, perfectionists refer to themselves as such with an air of pride. That to be a perfectionist — that is, to accept nothing less than perfection — is a desirable way to be and yields better results. While I would agree that it does have its place, true perfectionism is dangerous to creatives, both creatively and in terms of growth.

There are two ways "perfectionism" is usually interpreted, the watered-down version is using the word to mean conscientious and diligent — a natural disposition which has the perfectionist always doing their best and working carefully to ensure that what they produce is of high quality. This isn't the perfectionism I'm referring to. While it is certainly a sibling or cousin of what perfectionism so often means in a person, it's far more positive.

The more problematic form of this mindset is when a creative will settle for nothing less than the absolute best when it comes to whatever it is they create, that everything they do has to be knocked out of the proverbial park, portfolio-worthy, and flawless. This way of thinking is conversely dangerous, counter-productive, and highly restrictive. There is a plethora of knock-on effects from this brand of perfectionism, but most fall under three categories: never being satisfied, not working effectively, and not pushing yourself.

Never Being Satisfied

The first issue could easily be rebranded as a thirst for more, a desire to reach higher than ever before and better yourself. It's a tricky area as I don't necessarily think that's wrong, but the word on which the problem hinges is "never." The healthy and useful mindset of always looking for ways to improve is difficult to refute in both its effectiveness and value as a creative, but if you're too good at finding flaws in your work, this could lead to you never being happy or satisfied with what you create. If self-improvement is tied up with never being satisfied, you'll likely fall out of love with what you do. As is the case with most things, there has to be a balance, and if everything you create you immediately tear down, it ceases to be a purposeful critique for growth, and instead becomes something more toxic.

Perfectionists left unchecked seem to have a propensity of initial excitement towards their creation and then a steady decline into doubt and being unable to see past areas of their work that could have been improved. I see this regularly with other creatives, and I know I experience it myself. Achieving balance is difficult, but if you're never happy with what you create, if you never feel a proud satisfaction at your work, your perfectionism is working against you.

Not Working Effectively

Speaking of working against you, perfectionism can have some damaging practical effects too. That is, when you are a perfectionist, you are unlikely to be working with any real efficiency. This is another double-edged sword, as good work takes time, but if your mindset is becoming a ballast, it needs to be addressed.

This affects creatives in different ways depending on whether you're a professional or a hobbyist. For a professional, not working effectively can be terminal. Working effectively can be gauged by how many hours you put into a job and what you charge for it. If you're striving for absolute perfection in everything you create — something few clients (if any) expect — then you're likely not working at any decent pace. Missing deadlines simply cannot happen in the professional world if you want any semblance of a lasting career, and perfecting the first few pieces and then rushing the rest will likely have a similarly negative impact.

For hobbyists, not working effectively impacts your output, which is a simpler formula. For example, if as a photographer you are trying to get one shot and then trying to edit it to be an award-winning image, you are probably not shooting much. This isn't necessarily a poor outlook to have, but again, there needs to be a balance. By honing in on a specific shot you want and trying to achieve what is often unachievable, you're stunting your growth and missing many new shots. That isn't to say if you have a vision for an amazing shot you ought to give up at the first hurdle, but rather to keep any tunnel vision in check.

Not Pushing Yourself (Fear of Failure)

This final point is a little counterintuitive. If perfectionism is the relentless push for supremacy in what you do, how is that not pushing yourself? Well, the problem comes in a different form. It comes from keeping the bar within reach of where you currently are in terms of ability. One of the most detrimental effects of perfectionism is that you can't accept missing that mark, and so you become averse to risk. I'm intimately acquainted with this problem, and after I had become proficient with my camera, I was paralyzed by it. The better I got, the higher my standards and the fewer risks I wanted to take. I expected every shot I took to be portfolio-worthy, and if I saw an opportunity to do something great that was out of my comfort zone, I'd shy away. I preferred to keep my perfect record of success with shoots.

This is a terrible outlook and one I had to shed quickly. You learn surprisingly little from success, but enormous amounts from failure. Being a perfectionist is completely at odds with failure, and so any risk of failure is a risk too many. This isn't to say you should take on shoots you know you can't do, but rather embrace the challenge and not fear missing the mark. There is a plethora of sports quotes I could put here to reinforce the point, but the overall gist is that no one ever got great at something without failing.

How Has Perfectionism Affected You?

There are far more ways that a relentless desire and expectation for perfection can impact you. There are, of course, positives to this sort of mindset, and for some, perhaps they outweigh the negatives, but either way, I want to hear your relationship with perfectionism. Do you agree that it's dangerous for creatives, halts growth, and can endanger business? Or do you think it's a force for good, necessary to create great works?

Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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The first one is the definition of my experience with all creative pursuits. I never ever am proud or happy with my work. There is always a gap between what it is and what I want it to be and as my skillset improves so do my expectations. I don't see how it can ever end, but it is like a cancerous tumour attached to anything creative I do.

Agreed for the most part. It’s only cancerous if you allow it to be. It will either kill you, or make you better. The best thing I’d ever watched that mirrors my own feeling is from the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.

"as my skillset improves so do my expectations"

Embrace that! It is good that that is how it works. If our expectations for ourselves did not expand and increase, then we would never get better at anything.

We push ourselves to excellence because we are not satisfied with subpar or mediocre ..... and that is how it should be.

It's a good thing to push yourself. We all should, but not if it's making you miserable. If photography, or any other pursuit for that matter, gives more frowns than smiles, it may be time to move on.

I started seeing a new psychologist last August and she came out with this within 10 minutes of meeting me. I had joked that my mental health test scores are the only time I'm an over achiever. She said those with severe anxiety do tend to me high achiever/perfectionists and because of that we don't accomplish much. I've never felt more called out in my life but it's true. If I have a shoot idea and I can't do it exactly the way I envision it, I won't do it. I don't want to half-ass it. I control everything - I do the styling, sometimes I've made the props/costume bits. I even give the makeup artist "suggestions" on what I want and honestly if I knew how to do makeup I'd probably do that myself too. The only time I let others do everything I hated it. The same goes for other areas of life as well, if I feel like I won't get it right on the first attempt I don't want to do it. I see trying and failing as wasting resources despite the fact they're just sitting there collecting dust. During photoshoots I'm prone to not talking - I'll be so in my head I'll forget to speak to people. I'll get ideas for photoshoots and I'll be really excited about it, we do it, then afterwards I nitpick everything. One shoot I felt it needed more water, another shoot I saw some BTS video and wished I had thought to do more wide angle shots etc. I'm rarely 100% content with what I create. In regards to fear of failure - I go both ways. Fear of failure is something everyone has, but I also feared being successful because then people would have expectations of me and I couldn't handle the idea of that kind of pressure. I put enough on myself.

Not Pushing Yourself (Fear of Failure)

Perfectionism has the opposite effect on me. The way I feel is that it is not good enough to create something. The only thing good enough is to create something that is perfect. So this causes me to push myself even harder.

I spend more days afield shooting because it takes more time to create a near-perfect image than it does to create an image with obvious flaws. I force myself to stay out there in the blind in extreme cold, or when it seems like nothing will ever come along, because I know that the more time I spend in the blind, the greater my chances of getting images that come closer to perfection.

Perfectionism, in general, makes me put far more time and effort into my wildlife photography than I would ever put into it if I were not a perfectionist.

“Perfect is the enemy of good” is a phrase that appears in Wikipedia. When I first heard the saying a few years ago I soon realized that it is something I need to learn. As a perfectionist, I often have frustrating and unsatisfying experiences working on my creative projects. No wonder I am reluctant to even get started. Robert, thank you for your insightful article.