When highlighting workplace skills, accepting imperfection is a big one.
Something of a benchmark in luxury products is the Oriental or Persian rug. And yet, a fine Persian rug is likely to have intentional imperfections in it, following the maxim: “a Persian rug is perfectly imperfect and precisely imprecise.”
The traditional notion is that attempting to make a perfect product is presumptuous. This is not a point of view common in western culture today.
Many people consider themselves perfectionists. Even if you’re not one of them, it’s likely you take a certain amount of pride in the work you do. You like the praise you get, but you may also just be pleased to see a high-quality product resulting from your hard work.
Without taking anything away from such an accomplishment, here’s a thought: There can be a bit of magic in producing something that’s not quite perfect.
(Please note that we’re not talking about anything less than a satisfactory job here, nor are we talking about cutting corners and leaving crucial tasks undone. It’s more about the difference between 99% and 100%.)
The Essential Skill of Accepting Imperfection
Here are some examples of why you might choose (or accept) imperfection as an essential skill in the workplace:
- To Show Vulnerability – Sometimes you want to show that you’ll ask for help when you need it. You can explain that what you’re presenting represents your best effort and current knowledge, but that you know others have deeper knowledge or experience on a particular subject. The review process can draw out those contributions, educating you and making the deliverable better at the same time.
- To Show Humility – Virtually all of our work nowadays is collaborative in some sense. Having too much pride of authorship can be a problem. So, you might get contributions from someone else and need to accept that their style or their vision isn’t exactly the same as yours. You should think of the final product as being “ours” instead of “mine.”
- To Give Someone Something to Change – Sometimes you have to offer up your work for review to someone who feels the need to put his or her stamp on things. They just have to make a change to your work, marking their territory or justifying their participation in the process. So, perhaps you add something that’s designed to be removed or changed, playing to their desire to feel involved.
- To Reap a Return on Investment – It’s worth considering that not every work product needs to be refined like a PhD dissertation. Sometimes you just need to get something out there for discussion, because this step is just one of many.
Ultimately, the real challenge is not to find a rationalization for failing to be perfect, or a clever purpose to be served through an intentional flaw, but to accept that your work won’t be perfect, and find a way to make the most of it.
Do The Best You Can
Sometimes you’re showing your work to someone who has no interest in your vulnerability, humility, or desire to include them in the process. They just want your best work. Here’s a story that illustrates this perfectly:
The story (as was told to me, so don’t quote me) is that when Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State, he assigned a research topic to a young staffer, asking for it to be given to him on Friday. The young man worked on it for three days without sleep, constantly adding more research and doing rewrites, until he finally had the report for Kissinger on Friday.
Kissinger called him back to his office later in the day, hefted the report in his hand, and said, “Is this the best you can do?”
“No,” said the desperate staffer, eager to please. “There were a couple of other things I wanted to include, something I wasn’t quite sure about, and I could rework a couple of sections…”
So Kissinger handed it back to him, expecting a new draft on Monday. The staffer worked all weekend on it, again with no sleep, and gave Kissinger the next version on Monday.
Kissinger called him back to his office in the afternoon, and said: “Is this the best you can do?”
“Well, no,” said the sweating, increasingly desperate staffer, who feared that he was about to get fired. “There’s one or two things more I could check on. I didn’t get the latest data for one chart. And I’m still not happy with how the conclusion reads…”
So Kissinger handed the document back to him, asking for an update in two days.
Same drill. More all-nighters and the document goes back to Kissinger for review.
“Is this the best you can do?”
“Yes!” shrieked the staffer. “I can’t do anything more. It’s all I’ve got!”
“Excellent,” said Kissinger. “Now I will read it.”
It’s not about perfection. It’s about doing the best you can do.