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Dealing with criticism as a recovering perfectionist

“Good enough” has never been a strong part of my vocabulary. Growing up, anything less than an A was unacceptable to me. In college, a 4.0 was mandatory. Those expectations paid off, but didn’t work so well after academia.

When I started full-time software development, that perfectionist tendency carried over. Every line of code was meticulously combed for bugs, or removed altogether during the sixth refactor. Caring about code quality is important, but at some point perfection becomes the enemy of useful: 20 near-perfect lines of code have no utility for our users until they’re shipped.

How do we balance craftsmanship with usefulness? In software development, the cure is to “iterate to perfection”: get your code to 80% quality, have a colleague review the code to get it to 90%, then ship it. Over time, make that code better so it approaches perfection in the long term while still providing utility to your users.

This year has been crazy for photography: I started writing for two online photography publications, vlogging on YouTube and blogging here. As I funnel more time and energy into landscape photography, I’m rediscovering my perfectionist tendencies. After all, photography (and writing) is an art — what artist wants to show or publish less than perfect artwork?

In spending 20–30 hours a week on photography-related work, I find myself improving at shipping things that are 80% “good enough” out of sheer need.

So when I get not-infrequent comments to the effect of “the production quality is awful” or “I just wasted my time reading this,” my first instinct is bitterness. But after a few minutes, it quickly turns into self-reproach: why isn’t my work — vlogs, articles or photos — perfect like the old days?

Should I dig out my old perfectionist tendencies so I can safely return to being my only critic?

“Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.”
— Robert H. Schuller

My 60% “good enough” a month from now will be today’s 80%. In the long term, imperfect work will become more perfect while providing utility to people now. The challenge is to convince myself that providing utility now is worth the unkind words.

I think of the small businesses and private ventures my friends operate, and realize I’m guilty: not of making discouraging comments about their efforts, but omitting to exhort them. It’s not enough to not be a jerk — it’s my privilege and responsibility to encourage my peers who are doing things in spite of disparaging comments.

I have a challenge for you: this next week, pick one person or business who is doing something, and exhort them. Be their cheerleader. It’s as simple as leaving a thoughtful comment on their social media post or sending a text message. You will make their day. You may not use their product or think it’s tacky, but that’s not the point: encouraging our colleagues is the least we can do to invest in someone’s well-being.

The product — tacky, low production quality or otherwise — will improve with time. So invest a little of your time to feed them with the encouragement they need to stay strong.

It’s a free, easy way to practice empathy — and that’s a life skill we could all stand to perfect.

Jonathan Lee Martin

Jonathan Lee Martin

Globetrotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer in Atlanta. Working remotely as a developer + international trainer, scaling mountains at twilight to discover non-touristy landscapes.

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