Imperfect shells
5 min read

Imperfect shells

Why searching for perfection is wrong.
Imperfect shells

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of sitting on a beach, sifting sand and catching shells with my daughter. At first we were just keeping the perfect shells, all round, smooth, and without blemishes. But after a while I felt uneasy. Was I teaching her a bad lesson?

I was so struck by this thought I made a voice recording on my phone for the first time in my life, in a very 80s businessman-like way.

Listening back now I can hear the waves and the birds chirping in the nearby trees as I mumbled away awkwardly on my phone, not entirely sure about where I was going with this thought.

"We've been sifting sand with her blue plastic sieve, searching for perfect little shells, rejecting the imperfect ones. I've just realised that's a horrible lesson.

On closer inspection, the imperfect shells are far more interesting. Less predictable, with weird and wonderful shapes and colours. If we keep them, they are the ones we'd probably look at more often. They probably have a more interesting story to tell.

If we just collected the same, perfect little shells, everything would look the same. Thoroughly boring. There's a lot to be said for imperfections."

Perfect imperfections

You may have noticed by my regular typos that I'm not someone who could generally be labelled as a perfectionist. But I, like you I'm sure, have often stopped short of doing something because it didn't feel perfect, or at least good enough.

But it is in the flaws that perfection can actually grow.

In music, writing, movies and any other form, it's the most human of stories that move us most. And oftentimes they are wholly imperfect.

It is exactly the imperfection of an artist’s expression that makes it so flawless, so specific to him." - Michael Beinhorn, music producer

Nick Cave wrote a short article about why AI will never be able to write a great song.

While a computer could create good music, he said, it cannot make great music because it lacks the flawed, human experience that makes music transcendent.

Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is a powerful example.

A computer could conjure up the same chords, same drum beats and bass rhythm. It could tick the practical boxes because, technically, it's not that complicated to play. There's a reason it's often the first tune teens play in guitar shops.

But a computer couldn't create Kurt Cobain's lived experience. It couldn't speak to his experience growing up, his feeling of alienation, his anger. That is a story that reaches through the song and speaks to the hearts and minds of millions of people, even long after his death.

"What we are actually listening to," says Cave, "is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it."

Cobain's imperfections were also his perfections.

Cathedral projects

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft." - Anne Lamott, author

Starting this website tripped my anxiety levels to 11 for a while, knowing mistakes will often occur - I'm a terrible proof reader, for one. But for once I decided to press on and just learn as I go.

When it comes to writing shitty first drafts, I've had a script idea that I've had sitting in my mind for 10 years. If you get enough drinks in me I might start blathering on about it.

I've sat down to write it a couple of times but the first pages are so far from perfect it feels useless. I see so many imperfections in the first pages I give up.

This is despite knowing better.

I know it'll be shitty, and I should be ok with that. Shitty is certainly better than nothing because once you've got something shitty, you can start making it stink less.

In ‘Uncharted: How to Map the Future', author Margaret Heffernan talks about the problem of perfection.

The Sagrada Família in Barcelona took 133 years to build. Huge cathedral projects show how people came together, across generations, to create something wonderful, with no exact plan in place.

Today, cathedral projects are unlikely to occur. We demand too much certainty. Too many plans and strategies. Too much risk analysis.

But the great cathedrals were created precisely because the process was imperfectly human. They evolved through dedication and collaboration across generations, and a stubborn belief that the work mattered.

Heffernan gives an example of the illusion of perfection in software development.

If you've ever had the pleasure (?) of writing some code, you've likely spent quite some time fixing bugs before wondering: shall I just start this all again?

There's this belief that the second time you won't make a mistake, that the code will be flawless.

But it never works out that way. A fresh version brings up fresh problems.

We just have to be ok with problems, as frustrating as they seem, and understand that that's all part of the process.

Strive for imperfection

There are a lot of very smart, very creative people out there.

Most of them haven't been discovered because of what Janis Ozolins wonderfully depicts as the 'perfectionist monster'.

The sooner we understand that perfection is holding us back and is something we shouldn't strive for, the sooner we can start creating things that at least speak to us.

If something speaks to us, it'll likely speak to someone else as well.

"If you’d like to be good at something, the first thing to go out the window is the notion of perfection." - Scott Berkun, Confessions of a Public Speaker

This dawned on me thanks to my 2-year-old.

Since then, when we're out searching from shells on the beach of leaves in the woods, I'm pointing her to the imperfect ones.

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more