by Angela Noel
February 8, 2018
Two words drive me crazy. The first is perfection. I don’t believe perfection exists. I happen to like plenty of things that don’t exist, fairies for example. Or Santa, he’s a pretty jolly (not real) man. But the myth of achieving perfection causes real problems at work and at home. And that makes me mad. Santa never made me mad. Fairies are equally blameless. So, perfection is bad.
The second word that gets my dander up is failure. The necessity of failure as a mechanism for knowledge makes it beautiful. But FAIL has a nasty reputation. Failure is as much a myth as perfection, but we don’t often see it that way. Sure, things don’t go as planned. Consequences for not meeting expectations exist, and should. The WORD isn’t the problem. The problem is the way we make it about the PERSON being a bad or ineffective human being, rather than about particular action that didn’t produce the desired result.
Our culture says one is bad, the other is good.
But I want to change that. And the reason why is simple: I cannot be perfect. I cannot not fail. Here’s a couple of recent examples:
At home: I left the garage door open as I rushed to make a yoga class.
At work: I revised a presentation so many times I had to stop working on it for a few days before I ripped it up and threw it out the window.
Now, I’m not saying I don’t work hard. I’m not saying I’ll ever stop CARING. I’m simply saying, I believe putting less pressure on myself to get it right the first time and focusing on making it better EACH time produces better results.
After all, I should remember that nearly every great thing in history was preceded by a whole bunch of failures. For example, we all know it took lots and lots of attempts for Edison to invent the lightbulb. And it took Unilever hundreds of tweaks on the original design to develop a nozzle that sprays liquid laundry soap in precisely the right way to produce powdered detergent, as explained by economics writer Tim Harford in his excellent TED talk on Trial, error and the God complex. With no shortage of examples to cling to, why is it still so hard to give up on trapping the perfection-unicorn?
Laugh at Perfection
Seth Godin, in his book Linchpin, talks about the challenge of perfection and failure a great deal. He shares a manifesto written in 2009 by inventor and entrepreneur Bre Pettis and his collaborator, Kio Stark. In Godin’s book and Pettis’ manifesto, perfection is the enemy of done. “Laugh at perfection,” Pettis writes. “It’s boring and keeps you from being done.” The Unilever nozzle and the lightbulb both did what they were supposed to do. But perfect? What does that even mean? A writer can write a novel (or a blog post) and be without grammatical or stylistic flaw, but is it perfect? No writer will tell you so.
Be Perfect at Failing Beautifully
I don’t have the answer as to why it’s so hard to give up striving for perfection. Maybe it’s cultural, or psychological, or both. But I do know it only hurts me and those I love most when I try so hard and get utterly bent out of shape about it when I fail to arrive at “perfect.” I’d like to change that.
Whether building a nozzle, inventing a new technology, or making art, fear of failure and the cult of perfection get in the way of creating great and useful things. Clearly, these people; Edison, the good folks at Unilever, Pettis, and Godin, knew how to fail successfully. Maybe I should love failure as I love my child, my pet, my spouse. It could be my best friend.
Be perfect at failing beautifully. Now that’s a phrase I could get behind.
Your turn: How do you feel about perfection and failure? When was the last time you embraced failure as a friend?