Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. —Salvador Dali
Please pardon me for name dropping, but this story loses significance without it.
Standing next to the late Helmut Newton one day, he reached into his bag and pulled out his old 35mm camera, sans lens cap, checked his film, and started shooting. After having taken about a dozen shots, he turns the camera around and looks at the lens; it was covered in dust. The whole camera, for that matter, was somewhat less tidy than one might expect. Worn, obviously well-used, there were smudges and dirt on the body as well as the lens. Helmut sighed, took out his shirttail, and quickly rubbed it over the face of the lens.
One of his long-time assistants ran over with a different lens and said, “Here, this one’s clean.”
Helmut replied, “But this is the one I want; it’ll do.” He then proceeded to finish the set, creating wonderful images with an interesting touch of texture in the shadows.
Some have called Newton’s photography perfection, but I was there; it wasn’t. While there were things he would fuss about, especially regarding composition relative to light, there were plenty of other issues he let slide. He was always more concerned with the creative aspect than he was perfection.
By contrast, anyone who has worked around photographers in general, especially younger photographers, has met that one who is never quite satisfied. They’ll mess with lights for hours, fuss over the slightest wrinkle in a backdrop, scream about whether there is enough white showing in a model’s eyes, and complain that everything on the set is not perfect. They produce technically accurate photos, but their images lack any passion or creativity.
I’m not saying one shouldn’t strive for a certain amount of excellence in their work. By all means, whether one is taking a picture or writing a song or painting a landscape there is a given standard of excellence below which a work is not considered viable. To be so consumed with the ultimate perfection in one’s work, though, achieves only technical excellence and results in work that is ultimately boring.
Perfection is not just a creative problem, but a psychological issue. A 2008 article in Psychology Today states that, “… perfectionism is a crime against humanity.” Our society requires flexibility, adaptation, and accepting ambiguity if we are to survive. Being a perfectionist makes one a slave in addition to creative a level of psychological stress. Perfectionists equate mistakes with complete failure and who can stand up to that kind of pressure?
At the core, perfectionism is about fears of failure and rejection and trying to keep ourselves protected. Perfectionism is a defense that tricks us into believing that it protects us. If we perceive the possibility of an attack, we get back into our shell to protect ourselves. When we engage in this never ending cycle, we self-sabotage and set ourselves for failure.
Creativity defies perfection. Being creative means taking risks, breaking rules, stretching outside one’s comfort zone and taking sometimes severe risks. Perhaps one of the biggest risks is that other people may not like your work. Again, that’s not to say that there aren’t standards, but when we’re being our most creative we are also most susceptible to criticism. We are always targets of criticism for those who just don’t “get it,” but we should never let that keep us from trying something different, something new.
I look back through my archives at various attempts to do something different. Some I absolutely abhor and shudder to think that I ever shared them publicly; they no longer meet my standards for which is acceptable. I look at others, though, and wish that I could maintain that same level of creativity in everything I do. Yet, one of the challenges of being creativity is that it is not a constant. As new ideas pass through our mind some are inevitably more viable than others. Sometimes we don’t have the resources, in other instances we don’t have the time. With such fluctuating variables, attempting to impose perfection on top of it all simply opens the door to what we perceive as failure.
I wrote yesterday how frustrated I am with the boring state of the arts and how popular culture has imploded. Our drive toward perfection has led to a sameness that is void of passion. There is a lack of experimentation and no one is ready to take risks. Too often, even when one does take risks and tries to buck “the system,” they get shut down, de-funded, or otherwise ignored.
The solution requires more than just changing our personal attitudes toward perfection but simultaneously rejecting it from the media we consume. Avoid the boring. Stay away from the movies that are just like all the other drivel you’ve seen. Avoid the music that sounds exactly like all the other drivel you hear. Don’t accept digitally driven perfection that compromises true creativity.
Perfection is the enemy because it cannot, ever, be achieved and our drive toward that unattainable goal blocks our ability to be creative. Let your creativity run free, let mistakes happen. We’ll all be happier for it.