Oct 1 2009

Perfection vs. Excellence

Wild aster - VAI was thinking about how we work as photographers now and what that means if we want to do our best. I looked at the relationship of perfection and excellence to a photographer’s workflow in my blog, www.photodigitary.com, but realized how important this is in my life as a whole. I have often said that I believe that only God is perfect, and that humans, we can never be perfect, yet so often, we try to be exactly that.

Over the years, I have often thought about the difference between striving for excellence and or for perfection. I have struggled with this at times, too, but today, I recognize that striving for excellence is a good goal, while striving for perfection will lead more often to frustration and disappointment. It is impossible to ever be perfect, yet we can reach excellence. There was a well known book called, On Excellence, by John Kenneth Galbraith, years ago that really helped me face this issue. Excellence means you set a high standard and work to achieve that. That is generally possible. Perfection is always an elusive goal because as humans, we can never be perfect.

For nature photographers, too, I think we might learn a bit from nature on this one. You could argue how perfect nature is. Some people will say it is, but then others will point out “problems”, but both are really perspectives outside of nature itself. Nature doesn’t strive for perfection — look at all of the variation in a given species of plant or animal — perfection implies no variation. Nature does strive for excellence, in a sense, because anything less means you don’t survive. A wolf doesn’t care about hunting with perfection, simply the excellence that brings down the prey or not. A flower doesn’t care about perfection, only about excellence that ensures pollination occurs. It is interesting to go back to the well known verse in Mathew 6:28-31, “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” That has to represent excellence if there every was any. Note that there is nothing said about perfection. No one would say that Solomon was perfect.

Job 9:20 says, “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse.” Perfectionism can do that to you. It can drive you crazy, because if you must be perfect, you will never be satisfied with decisions you make. Why? Because there is always the possibility of something better. Whereas with excellence, you can set as high a standard as you want, but then when you reach that standard, you know you have done what is needed and you don’t need to do anything else. Striving for perfection is striving to be god-like and only God is God. The only way we can be perfect is when we do something walking with God, trusting in Him, as it says in Deuteronomy 18:13, “Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God.” To think we can be perfect in our normal activities is a short course to failure and frustration.

Striving for excellence does not mean that if you achieve it, that you do not look to improve your skills. Life in nature constantly adapts to conditions, striving for the excellence needed for those conditions, but “knowing”, in a sense, that perfection could be a path to extinction. If a plant or animal is “perfectly adapted” to an environment, then if that environment changes even so slightly, it will not be able to survive. Excellence for us and nature is a way of doing our best with what God has given us, then knowing and accepting that this is enough, just like the lilies of the field. The photo here is of a wild aster in Shenandoah National Park.

— Rob