The gifts of imperfection
The other day, on a large Zoom call, the bark of a participant’s dog intruded on the formality of the discussion. The owner was livid and apologetic. But the incident introduced a moment of curiosity, exchange, and laughter that dramatically enlivened the mood.
That barking dog helped me find the words to describe something that has been simmering in the back of my mind for years. There is an old part of me that has been loosening and shifting. For as long as I remember, I have lived with the perfection bug: shouldn’t perfection be the goal in everything I do – be it parenting, hosting friends for dinner, writing a note to a client or carving turns on skis? Furthermore, if I aspire to be a role model for people in my life, isn’t it my obligation to want to be seen as perfect?
A case in point: I have been a management consultant for most of my career. In that profession, perfection was the holy grail. The quest for perfection stemmed from well-meaning intentions – we crafted watertight logical arguments to scaffold our presentations; we talked about “the killer analysis” that would make our point beyond the shadow of a doubt; we dismissed ‘noise’ in the data so that our conclusions felt solid like granite; we quality controlled our outputs to death to make sure that no mistake lurked anywhere; we showed up at every meeting with a ‘deck’ to keep the conversation on point; when working closely with client team members to build their capability, we made sure that they were never seen stumbling by their bosses; and so on.
Of course, we very rarely reached perfection. That was dispiriting in and of itself. But what was deeply troubling was hidden in plain sight: when we did manage to deliver say, the prefect presentation, we could almost hear the coin drop in the room, we could almost touch the aura of admiration hanging in the air, and we would sometimes receive a round of applause (it happened to me early in my career, and it turned into an addiction); but there would be little or no engagement, no curious questions, no sense of agency palpable in the room; and later, there would be little to no momentum towards actual change. It was as if our recommendations had landed but not sank in – like ice dropping on skin, it startles and quickly melts away.
Perfection leaves us in awe. Staring at Michelangelo’s David, I cannot help but be compelled by its impeccable mastery. It strikes me as a timeless masterpiece, frozen in glory and in space. It does not draw me in. It does not invite me to imagine, to make sense, to iterate. Its perfection feels almost insensitive, aloof, a whiff arrogant to me. I suspect that this is not unlike what some of our clients must have felt as we strove for perfection.
On the other hand, looking at the same Michelangelo’s unfinished Rondanini Pieta (photo above), I feel invited to partake in the sculptor’s unfinished creation. My mind races to imagine what he might have wanted to chisel away, how he might have wanted to complete the work, what possibilities he held in his mind’s eye. I also wonder in what direction might other sculptors have taken the piece. In short, it is the unfinished, incomplete, flawed nature of that Pieta that hones my curiosity, amplifies my engagement, and lets a million possible end points blossom in my mind.
In my new career as a facilitator and coach, I have come to relish imperfection – a wrong turn of phrase that ignites laughter; a question from left field to which I have no answer, inviting the room to muse with abandon; a disagreement with a co-facilitator that sparks a lively debate; running late and improvising a more efficient way to teach the next module; an experiment that fails but in its failing causes new insights about the system to surface – be it the market, the regulatory environment, the supply chain or the organization. I vividly recall a workshop at which I made a clumsy intervention that angered a key senior executive. He pulled me aside at the next break, ready to come to blows. We processed the incident in the moment and used it as an opening to discuss how conflict and disagreement can, when embraced, open unforeseen new vistas – a teaching point that had been elusive in this polite, consensus-driven environment.
While perfection leaves us in awe, it keeps us outside its making. In this way, it smacks of arrogance. Imperfection invites us in to imagine and create and improve together. In this way, imperfection seeds curiosity.
For many of us, the quest for perfection is compulsive. What can we do to lean into imperfection, however effortfully at first? I offer 3 thought starters:
- Examine your immunity to change: What are you afraid would happen if you were seen as imperfect? What hidden commitment does that fear serve? What Big Assumption underpins it all? In my case, I have found that I have been ruled by the belief that unless I am seen as perfect, I will not be loved and admired (it all started with my mother … oh well!)
- Plan for imperfection: this sounds contradictory. It is, but it is easier done than said: Force yourself to spend less time polishing whatever plan you have. Leave room for randomness, happenstance and improvisation.
- Get comfortable living with imperfection: let a little messiness sprout in your living room, on your bookshelf, in your fridge. Seek help from colleagues and friends. Allow yourself to tear up and to laugh, particularly at yourself.
PS: Writing this blog, I kept noticing my impulse to make it perfect – choosing to line edit the sentences I have written rather than penning imperfect new ones. Halfway through my compulsion, I took my own medicine and sent it to a couple of friends to review instead. They made it so much better, and so much easier on me.
PPS: In this writing, by “perfection” I am referring to our quest to produce and create ideas and things that are error free, our allergy for mistakes, our fear of being wrong, deficient, our dread of failing. For those readers coming from a Platonic perspective, I hurry to say that I am not using perfection in the sense that Plato meant it – the Platonic forms that are good and desirable but beyond reach. My son, a fan of Plato, called me out on it and said:
“I was bringing Plato up because of his disdain for the sophists and their word-bending ways, because I think he would have been pretty anal about wanting a definition for ‘perfection,’ and if he’d used the Socratic method to elicit one it might have looked a bit like:
-Do you think that perfection is a good thing?
-Do you think that something’s failing to stimulate the imagination is good?
-Do you think that something’s seeming arrogant and aloof is good?
-Then don’t you agree that these qualities must not come from perfection, but from some other thing?
Humbling, I guess, but it does underline the point I am making …