“The average photo that you DO take”


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So, this happened …

As I walked around campus, a flash of movement caught my attention. A guy had just tried to punch someone, who ducked, then picked the attacker up and threw him down on the ground.

I laughed out loud. (This was, after all, my first week at university.)

During this so-called “Orientation Week”, all the various clubs set up tables to attract new members, and I was just happened to be walking past a choreographed fight put on by the Karate Club.

I ended up joining a few of the groups, still somewhat naive about how much free time I would actually have at university. This included the Tang Soo Do Club (Korean martial art) and the Mechanical Shrubbery Club (we’d meet monthly to watch Monty Python movies and drink beer).

And I also joined the Photography Club.

I didn’t know much about photography, so I was particularly excited about this one. We would learn how to use a dark room (this was before digital photography!), would get group lessons, and the organizers would sometimes get aspiring models (male and female) from campus to pose for us on a Saturday morning, to practice our photography skills. (That was actually a great idea: we’d get free models, and the models would get free photos to include in their portfolio.)

Naturally, I decided I needed a better camera than the one I had.

So after short-listing a few expensive models (including additional lenses) I spoke to my mom. My grandmother ran a photography studio for many years, so when my mom worked there during her school holidays. As a result, she grew up knowing a lot about photography, so I invited her to come shopping with me to help make the final camera selection.

After I showed her which ones I was thinking of getting, she surprised me by walking away to another part of the store and, waving towards a point-and-shoot with a really good non-detachable zoom lens, she recommended that one. It cost less than a quarter of what I had chosen and was way less flashy.

“This isn’t a great camera, Mom,” I argued.

“When last did you go out, carrying a camera with you,” she argued back.

“I don’t often. I guess just when I’m going somewhere for a special occasion.”

This was before mobile phones with their built-in cameras, so back then you actually had to make a conscious effort to bring your camera with you when you went out.

We continued our discussion in the store.

“And if you buy this heavy SLR with these two lenses, how likely are you to just sling the large camera bag over your shoulder and carry it with you, just in case you see something you’d like to take a photo of?”

“I probably won’t,” I admitted.

“And this point-and-shoot,” she smiled, “Could you see yourself casually carrying this around?”

“Yes actually,” I conceded. “That wouldn’t be a big deal to take out with me often.”

“Good,” she concluded. “Then get this one. Remember Greg, the average photo that you DO take, is much better than the fantastic photo that you never take.”

Simple Definition

The average photo that you DO take: We often put off doing good things because we aspire to do awesome things. But since awesomeness takes extra effort, extra time, extra equipment, we end up doing nothing.

Summarizing what it means

Do you recognize the poisonous thinking in the examples below?

  • “There’s no point in doing short 10-minute workouts at home, it’s better for me to go to a proper gym for an hour or two each time.” (But then you never join a gym.)
  • “Why bother memorizing 20 sentences in a new language – it would be better to go all-in and formally learn the language.” (And yet you still don’t even know 20 sentences in that language.)
  • “It’s not enough to just stop putting sugar in my coffee, I should rather go on a really strict diet.” (But you still haven’t decided which one.)
  • “I won’t only read the summary of each new #HashtagYourLife chapter, it’s much better to put aside time to fully read each chapter, and journal about it.” (But you keep finding you ”don’t have time” and therefore have missed the last eight chapters.)

This type of thinking – of aspiring for perfection but then not even doing “good enough” – is incredibly destructive.

BUT you already know this. And yet, even knowing this trap, we still continue to hold out, waiting and aspiring. But not achieving.


Part of the reason is denial – we believe that this time it will be different. But that denial often exists because we don’t realize how often it happens in our lives.

So the key here is to create the habit of noticing when it happens – with you or others – and to flag it “The average photo that you DO take”. Labeling those moments will remind you of how common a problem this is, and trigger the right response from you.

With that power, you become better able to stop this habit when you notice it’s happening, and you can motivate yourself to take more action.

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

    – Winston Churchill

Discussing what it means

Do you get annoyed at yourself, when you know you could and should be taking action, but aren’t?

Do people around you frustrate you, when you see that they keep stalling on the small steps, while continuing to wait for the perfect conditions to take perfect action?

At last, you have a label (“The average photo that you DO take”) to flag this in your mind when it arises.

If you know every single time exactly what you’re dealing with, then you can do the right thing. Every. Single. Time.

When the “perfect photo” means NO photo

This chapter is not about a technical analysis of which camera takes the best photo. Those are “laboratory conditions” where the practical aspects are put aside, like price, lens options, convenience, and more.

The reality is that your choice of camera will affect whether or not you take it out with you, and therefore whether you take the perfect photo that your camera is capable of.

That amazing camera is probably bulky and heavy. Not only are you less likely to want to carry it around with you #justincase, but the more you carry it around with you, the more likely it is to be stolen or broken.

And so you don’t take it out. And you don’t end up taking an amazing photo. Indeed, at the end of the day you’re left with NO photo.

Similarly, you don’t end up taking a short jog, because you’re holding out for a solid chunk of time to go to the gym and do a great workout. Which never happens.

And you don’t date that person because of some minor flaws, yet you end up waiting years, hoping to meet someone who is perfect. And perfection never arrives.

You want to have the “hero”. But you end up with “zero”.

These words are a great way to summarize the primary lesson of this chapter.

When the “perfect photo” means the MOST EXPENSIVE photo

You might think that the “NO photo” outcome is the worst that could happen, but sadly that isn’t true.

Sometimes the biggest cost is not that we fail, but it’s the price we pay in order to succeed.

Sticking with the photography example, let’s say you’re so focused on perfection that you buy the damn expensive camera, plus a couple of extra lenses for good measure. And you make a point of carrying that awesome equipment around with you in order to take the perfect photo each time … what’s the worst that could happen?

  • More money spent on the camera and lenses means less money to spend on other things. So there’s an opportunity cost
  • There is the inconvenience of lugging around that heavy camera and lenses, which puts a toll on you
  • Then you risk leaving your camera bag on a bus, or having it stolen at a restaurant, or dropping and breaking it as you swap the strap from one shoulder to the next
  • Perhaps all this starts to annoy you a little, so taking photos goes from a passion to a burdensome obligation.

What originally seemed like a great idea has ended up costing you money, time, stress, and passion. You would have been better off chasing average rather than perfection.

The Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule, reminds us that we can get most of the result with a minimal (but carefully targeted) effort. That’s how to be smart.

This is the secondary lesson of this chapter.

Don’t use the “average photo” idea as a weak excuse to lower your standards

I know you’re smart, you’re a #HashtagYourLife reader after all, so it’s easy for you to twist my words. (See #[Emptying the dehumidifier] for an entire chapter on this.)

The lesson is not that we should lose aspiration for better, not that we should always be cutting corners, not that we should settle for low standards.

The right attitude looks like this:

  • “I keep promising myself I will meditate for half an hour a day, but I never seem to find the time. From now on, I will commit to just 5 minutes of meditation, first thing in the morning.”

The wrong attitude looks like this:

  • “I know I want to meditate for 30 minutes daily, but it’s hard to find the time. I’ll just watch a half-hour episode of Netflix each day as a way of unwinding. Greg said we shouldn’t chase perfection, so this is OK.”

Hopefully, you don’t need me to explain the difference between an unrelenting and costly obsession with perfection, and a weak pathetic excuse to lower your standards.

The Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

In the business world, from startups to large corporations, they are constantly talking about the MVP.

Consistent with the teachings of this “average photo” chapter, the best advice is generally that you should start off launching a basic product which barely achieves the desired requirements, and then enhance and refine from there.

Think of a new software company that is aiming to launch the next world-changing app. They’re working towards the perfect product, and so include too many features, and spend too much time and money towards a flawless design.

But what happens?

  • While they are planning the perfect product, another company comes in with an MVP and immediately starts building market share
  • The cost of implementation – particularly because a more complex product requires more effort, and is likely to have more bugs that need fixing – is so high that when they launch, their product is too expensive for the market
  • That is, assuming they even launch – because they may run out of money along the path to perfection
  • And unfortunately, when (if) their product launches, they may discover it’s not even what the market wants – which is a complete waste. If they had started with an MVP, the early feedback might have steered them to develop a slightly different product that better met the needs of their users.

This is widely applicable, from launching online courses to designing your logo.

Q: What do you call the person who graduates last in their class at medical school?

A: Doctor.

When you use perfection as an excuse

Sometimes people are truly chasing perfection, but end up with nothing. That’s unfortunate, and that’s part of what we’re trying to avoid here.

But sometimes we have motivation issues, and if we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that we probably aren’t going to do anything about it. (In the language of #HashtagYourLife, we say that these people are like #[The dog on the rusty nail].)

But we can still be in denial. Deep down inside we know we’re never going to start learning that foreign language, or taking chess lessons. But instead, we invent excuses like “If I’m going to do it, I will do it right” and “I’ll just wait until conditions improve, and then I will throw myself fully into it”.)

But that’s not true – can you see you’re just making excuses? You’re trying to feel better about doing nothing (“I want to do it properly”) when in reality is you can’t even find the motivation to take an average photo, let alone do what it takes to take a perfect photo.

Big things AND little things

Here’s a true story, which is discussed in more detail in #[I learned to speak Chinese by mistake]:

  • I decided to learn a few phrases in Chinese for my business trips out to Asia
  • But I forgot to stop learning, and by mistake just continued listening to Chinese podcasts
  • A year later, I found that I was conversational in Chinese
  • If I had not allowed for the possibility of “just learn a few phrases”, but instead had waited until I had time to formally take lessons, I would probably never have begun!
  • I learned to speak Chinese because I was OK with an “average photo”.

You can apply this concept of aiming for “the average photo that you DO take” in many ways in your own life. These can be big things or little things …

  • Quit smoking (because it’s better to go from 20 a day down to 15 starting now, than to aspire to fully quit but never commit)
  • Get fit, lose weight, improve your diet (yes, little improvements are a great start, and are anyway taking you towards your ultimate goal)
  • Learn a language, play a musical instrument, pick up a new skill
  • Three minutes of mindfulness that you DO, is better than half an hour of meditation that never happens
  • Ten seconds of absent-mindedly flossing a couple of times a week is better than the failed aspiration to floss for three minutes every single day
  • Actually reading a single page from a book each night is better than promising yourself a chapter a day that you never have time (or motivation) for
  • Rather spend half an hour doing “adequate” research, than spend hours and hours diving down every little rabbit hole, without much added value to show for it.

The nice thing about actually doing average things, rather than failing to do awesome things, is that action creates a habit. And it’s much easier to build on a small existing habit than it is to create a significant habit in the first place.

There’s an entire chapter written about this, called #[One push-up a day].

This is what you should be doing

The simplest advice I can give you is:

  • The average photo that you DO take is better than the perfect photo that you never end up taking – so take that photo

At a higher level, the lesson you should take away is:

  • Once you’ve got a habit of doing average things, you can build on that habit if you so choose
  • Just never build so far that you get caught in the perfection trap.

And, looking at the big picture, looking at your life’s philosophy:

  • Work out what you really want
  • Now think about what you really need
  • Think about what you’re actually prepared to do (not just what you promise yourself you will do, but don’t)
  • Be honest with yourself throughout this process
  • Now build your world based on your conclusions.

Hashtag those moments!

This is where the power comes in.

If you aren’t noticing all the moments in your life when you’re failing because you’re aiming too high, when it’s costing you too much compared with just delivering something acceptable, then you haven’t even begun to realize how much better your life could be.

Notice when other people – family, friends, colleagues, clients – are being held back by being impractically aspirational.

Tell them the story of “the average photo that you DO take” (change it as much as you need, to make it yours) so they can understand how they are trapped.

  • This might help them become more realistic
  • It might result in their taking action
  • It might help your client buy a “good enough” product or service from you, rather than not implementing anything because they’re still focused on the perfect solution (which requires more time and money than they have available right now).

When you start to see how often this concept plays out in your life, and the lives of the people around you, you will become so much more optimistic about what is possible in life.

Making it personal

Here are a few questions to play around with:

  • Do you carry any regrets about things you never did?
  • What about regrets of things you did do, but in retrospect the cost was too high?
  • Think of something that you’d like to be doing right now, but aren’t. Now think about what that looks like from an “average” point of view, and what that looks like from a “perfect” point of view. How can you adjust your attitude, your aspirations, your actions – so that you actually start doing this?
  • Consider what you’re doing these days that you’re proud of. Perhaps a reading habit, exercise, learning something, control over your social media habits? Think back to when you started … what did you decide at the time? What actions did you take then, compared to what it had become now? In retrospect, what would “average” have looked like, and would would “perfection” have looked like?
  • At work, are you a perfectionist? For example, do you reply to every single email, when you could benefit by just ignoring the less important ones? Do you take half a day to put together a presentation, when an hour of work would give something more than good enough?
  • Where are your standards too high? Where are they too low?

Don’t rush through this. The value from understanding how “The average photo that you DO take” concept fits in your own life is significant.

Tag it. Tame it.


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Related Stories

#[One push-up a day]
#[The dog on the rusty nail]
#[Emptying the dehumidifier]
#[I learned to speak Chinese by mistake]
#[Giving comics not books]

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