”To escape criticism – do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard
Perfectionism is killing my dream.
It’s killing yours, too.
It’s a gut punch to think about how much I haven’t done with my life because I was waiting for the right time, or to be “ready.” How much art have I not made? How many potential clients have I not served? How many photographers have I not helped? Where would I be today?
Perfectionism is not discernment.
The Resistance tricks us into thinking we’re doing the right thing by doing nothing. Perfectionism disguises itself as an attention to quality, presentation, professionalism.
At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” – Michael Law
How can you identify perfectionism in action?
It speaks just one word:
Tell me if you’ve ever said this to yourself:
- I don’t have the time yet.
- I don’t have the money yet.
- My art isn’t good enough yet.
- I don’t know what I’m doing yet.
- My camera gear isn’t good enough yet.
- I’m not ready yet.
- I don’t know what to say yet.
- I don’t know what to do if [what if scenario] happens, yet.
- I don’t know anything about [business, marketing, sales] yet.
- My web site isn’t ready yet.
- My pricing isn’t ready yet.
- I haven’t [read enough books, watched enough videos, done enough tutorials or courses] yet.
- I can’t compete yet.
- I don’t know how to use [social media platform] for my business yet.
- Photoguru Soandso said I can’t call myself a professional yet.
- I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good as Hero Photographer yet.
- I haven’t explored every possible thing that could happen yet.
- I don’t have a perfect plan yet.
Are you cringing, too?
Hey, my hand’s in the air, because these are all rationalizations I’ve made. I’ve fought half of them just writing this article. And don’t think because I’m writing this and you’re reading it that I don’t fight these battles all the time.
As a kid, I spent more time reading Nintendo Power than playing Mario or Metroid or Zelda because I wanted to play them perfectly.
As a teenager, I acted the clown and blew off doing my best at choir or sports or speech because I was scared to be imperfect at it.
As an adult, I’ve spent exponentially more time consuming education and information than practicing or teaching it, because I was scared to do so imperfectly.
As a mentor, I’ve brainstormed hundreds of ideas for how I can better serve startup photographers, but taken a pittance of action because I’m scared those actions will be imperfect.
I’ve tried every trick I could find to overcome perfectionism: productivity practices, motivational audiobooks, affirmations and visualizations.
Nothing worked on its own. I kept falling back into the same ruts, the same excuses to play small.
Until I learned of Imperfect Action.
How I Practice Imperfect Action
“Let it go. Let it go.” – Elsa
You wouldn’t recognize a PTP post on the first draft. Hell, you wouldn’t read it. My first drafts are braindumps obese with superfluous words like superfluous. Occam’s Razor has yet to trim the vanity and horsesh*t from my prose.
That’s because Imperfect Action is exactly what it sounds like.
If I stared at this laptop until the perfect words came, you’d have nothing to read, and I’d be a sun-bleached skeleton hunched over a keyboard.
You don’t know it or believe it yet, but Your People are out there waiting for you to launch. They’re waiting for the unique blessing of your art, experience, personality, and affordability. For those people, you are already the perfect fit.
I hesitate to call the practice of Imperfect Action a paradigm shift, because when I read the words ‘paradigm shift,’ I want to slap the author. But the phrase has its rare place: a fundamental change in approach or assumptions.
Is your current approach working?
Are your current assumptions serving you?
If you’re losing the battle against perfectionism, it’s time to change the game.
Here is my four-step process for the practice of Imperfect Action:
“Control is for beginners.” – Ane Stormer
As soon as I feel resistance set in, I take a deep breath and say aloud, “I’m just practicing.”
This serves to violently interrupt the pattern of desire > fear > rationalization.
My heart desires to ask the barista if she’ll let me photograph her for my portfolio.
Fear says she’ll judge you, she’ll reject you, she’ll laugh at you, she’ll think you’re weird, she’ll talk about you behind your back, or worse, she’ll say yes and you’ll bomb the shoot, saying stupid things, acting stupid ways, and completely embarrassing yourself.
So I rationalize that I’m not ready yet, and I shouldn’t ask her yet.
Spy that perfectionism language?
When you’re Just Practicing, your actions are completely divorced from the future, from consequence or result.
“It doesn’t matter if she says yes or no, or how stupid I sound when I ask, because I’m just practicing.”
This works for approaching potential clients, setting up your Facebook page, choosing a web site provider, going to the gym, eating a healthy meal, e-mailing your hero photographer…anything where perfectionism forces you into a fit of the “not yets.”
You’re just practicing. No blood, no foul. The consequences, which by nature our lizard brain will only present us the worst case scenarios of, are irrelevant.
There are no expectations.
It is what it is.
The goal isn’t to win or lose, get a yes or no, say the perfect thing or not.
The goal is to do. To practice. To earn 0.01% of experience.
It’s just practice.
You – everyone in fact – have all it takes to be a brilliant designer, creator, or author. All that’s holding you back is the lizard. It’s that little voice in the back of your head, the ‘but’ or the ‘what if’ that speaks up at the crucial moment and defeats the joy and insight you brought to the project in the first place.” – Seth Godin
The Sh*tty First Draft
If you’ve ever benefited from my writing, you can thank Anne Lamott.
Anne taught me the power of the Sh*tty First Draft.
The Sh*tty First Draft takes “Just Practicing” to the next level. It eliminates expectations. It celebrates every ounce of imperfect that comes with your first time doing anything.
Those first photos you took with your new dSLR…
The first time you tried yoga…
Your first bike ride without training wheels…
Your first visit to a fitness center…
My first time public speaking…
I stood there in front of the Bandera County Lion’s Club stuttering, sweating, suffocating as I read line after line of technical, aimless, bulleted information. I was invited to speak on the topic of photography; to help the elderly members make better photos with their new digital cameras.
My heart was in my throat. I couldn’t get air in my lungs. Every time I looked up, I saw a mix of blank, bored, confused, and pitying faces.
My chest gets tight just writing about it.
There’s a hidden beauty in this, though:
We’re never as bad as our first time.
And that’s the power of the Sh*tty First Draft to help you overcome perfectionism.
Give yourself permission to screw it all up. Approach your task with a humored detachment. Whether that’s the first photos of your next shoot or hitting Publish on your portfolio site. Make mistakes. Be imperfect. This is the Sh*tty First Draft. This is how you get to the next level.
“Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” – Brene Brown
Again, a dichotomy:
You have to let go of the weight of expectations and results while simultaneously investing 100% effort into the work at hand. You have to be both willing and unwilling to fail.
The better you get at this yin-yang flow, the more creativity, enthusiasm, focus, and confidence you’ll unleash. Do this well, and you won’t recognize yourself compared to the scared, ‘safe,’ small, ever-hedging artist you were before.
Give yourself permission to create a Sh*tty First Draft of whatever task or art or action or project you’re resisting. Celebrate the opportunity to make mistakes, and to make progress, no matter how fractional.
Because once you have a Sh*tty First Draft, you’re well on your way to a…
Minimum Viable Product
“In our push for perfection, we over-engineer. We add so many bells and whistles that it takes a Ph.D. to use the product. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Just because we can practice to perfection doesn’t mean that’s best.” – Deborah Mills-Scofield
MVP: Minimum Viable Product.
Another perfectionism-killer, the MVP is the simplest first iteration of any given effort.
- What’s the one photo you can make consistently that clients will pay for?
- What’s the smallest, simplest version of your web site that will help clients view your work and book with you?
- What’s the barest business model you can launch with?
- What’s the easiest way you can ask someone to shoot with you?
Your MVP doesn’t have to be a product: it can be an idea, a line, a question, a logo, a name, a pricing model, a business card, a photograph.
Focusing on your MVP instead of your perfectionism, you stop asking “What’s the biggest, best, most perfect, most impressive thing I could ever do?,” and you start asking, “What’s the simplest, easiest, fastest thing I could do right now?”
MVP takes your six-page, sixty-subpage, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink web site outline and turns it into a single, sleek landing page.
MVP takes your Master of Fine Arts degree and eight years of apprenticeship and turns it into picking up the phone and booking your next practice shoot for this weekend.
MVP takes your “not yets” and turns them into “Yes. Now.”
“Truth is lived, not taught.” – Hermann Hesse
Once you’ve accepted that you’re Just Practicing, you’ve embraced the Sh*tty First Draft, and settled on your Minimum Viable Product, it’s time to ship.
It’s time to experiment, and earn feedback.
It’s time to put your work out into the world, and start earning the insight that only comes with hands-on experience. This is what leads you to version 2.0, or even 1.1, of your work.
You can spend years researching and planning (I bet you already have, no?), and you’ll never get close to the acceleration that comes with shipping. To ship is to say “enough,” to let go, and to take imperfect action.
Version 1.0 is your MVP, that Sh*tty First Draft we all have to go through to earn progress.
And I use the word ‘earn’ purposefully here. There’s no magic, no yellow brick road, and neither a wicked nor good witch to hinder or help you. It takes incredible bravery to get this far; to finally get out of your own head and into the real world. It takes real effort, real work, real progress to even see version 1.0 of your art and business.
But version 1.0 is the worst it’ll ever be, and it leads to version 1.1…1.2…1.3…2.0…3.0… and so on until you quit or are buried. Iterate, ship; iterate, ship.
The best part?
Success becomes inevitable when you keep moving forward. Step by step, you climb that mountain, and there is nowhere to go but the top. Every photograph, every approach, every ask, every Publish, every time you refuse to accept “not yet,” you’re taking another crucial step toward the art and business you’ve dreamed of for so long.
You can do this.
If I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t be writing this, and you would have given up reading it two thousand words ago.
You are ready.
You have everything you need.
Now, Do The Work.
“Trick the lizard if you must, but declare war on it regardless. Understand that the only thing between you and the success you seek in a chaotic world is a lizard that figures out that safe is risky and risky is safe. The paradox of our time is that the instincts that kept us safe in the day of the saber tooth tiger and General Motors are precisely the instincts that will turn us into road kill in a faster than fast internet-fueled era. The resistance is waiting. Fight it. Ship.” – Seth Godin
This is Part 9 of my series: 9 practices to increase your productivity as a professional photographer
Read more here:
Like this series? Subscribe at the top-right of any page of this site to get all of my best stories and ideas in your Inbox.
- BREATHE: You’ve absorbed a huge number of tools of the heart, mind, and spirit in this nine-part productivity series. Lean back, take a deep breath, and pause a tick to recognize how empowered you are right now. You now possess an arsenal of weapons with which to fight and win against The Resistance. The weapons of Essentalism, an Evening Routine, a Morning Routine, Mindfulness, Five Minutes, Kaizen, Time Blocking, Scheduling, and Imperfect Action. Not one of these is theory – I practice every single one, every single day. And if I can do it, anyone can do it, including you.
- STAND YOUR GROUND: The Resistance is already fighting back against this newly-empowered you. You’re probably motivated in this moment, excited to test out these new tools, but your distractions and deep ruts and comfort zone are going to pull you back like gravity. You won’t see it happening. You’ll just wake up three months or three years from now, and realize you never changed anything. Stand your ground. Stay conscious. Choose your life. And cheat like hell: schedule time to schedule, put reminder post-it notes everywhere, and make it impossible to ignore or forget or get distracted from the practices you’ve learned. Be brave and take action right now to make sure you stay in the fight to make progress and make your dream art, business, and life possible.
- BRAINSTORM SESSION: Get out your pen and paper. What’s the number one challenge that’s been holding you back? Armed with these new tools, what are all the ways you can take Imperfect Action, starting today, to fight your way through that challenge?
- SUBSCRIBE TODAY: It’s my calling to relentlessly seek and serve the story-changing needs of startup photographers. Don’t miss out on my best stories and ideas: subscribe to my e-mail newsletter today at the top-right of any page of this site.
- DO THIS NOW: What’s the biggest challenge holding you back? E-mail me. I read everything, and I look forward to helping you make a breakthrough today.