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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 note of it:
"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."
It is in the flaws that perfection can actually grow.
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.
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.
"What we are actually listening to," says Cave, "is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it."
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.
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.
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.
Little big ideas: Beethoven
Beethoven was completely deaf in the last decade of his life. He could only 'hear' music in his imagination.
We might think that would be the end, but in fact it began a period where he produced the music that defined him as the greatest ever composer.
"As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head."
He actually became more original.
"Deafness freed Beethoven as a composer because he no longer had society’s soundtrack in his ears."
I love that sentence...
Perspectives in the age of echo chambers
If you take a look at various Twitter accounts of organisations in your industry, there's a good chance the messaging is rather... monotonous. Most will likely have a very narrow focus on their business, and few will stand out.
The day-to-day business is important, of course. But if you focus on that and only that, you'll end up saying the same things as everyone else, constantly in a battle against others to say the same thing only in a better way.
And that is really difficult. What is needed to standout is a different perspective.
How does one gain different perspectives? By tasting different things, regularly.
It may seem impossible at first but trust me, it is possible to plan moments of serendipity into your day.
Even if it's just 30 minutes to listen to a Podcast on your way to work and the promise you'll read at least five pages of a book before bed, you'll gain a great deal.
When you make note of what you learned or what you felt, new ideas and new perspectives will begin to flow.
This year I decided to not only read more, but expand the range of my reading.
It's surprisingly easy to start reading outside of your field once you start. Like six degrees of separation between friends, it's very much the same with topics.
This got me thinking about books I had read in the past, reflecting on how they might have impacted me today.
So, I decided to make a list of five books I read in my younger years that have in some way stayed with me, and indeed become a little part of me.
The exercise of making a list of things you've read and making a note of what they made you think and feel can become a valuable library of ideas and inspiration. Give it a try.