I’m a recovering perfectionist.
It’s a battle I’ve waged for years. I’d often catch myself spending a few futile hours moving paragraphs around on the same page for the sixteenth time. I’d become obsessed with every crevice and corner, every comma and semicolon, just to get the article or the book chapter perfect — as Sisyphus rolled his eyes at me.
Of course, I knew about the usual vices of perfectionism — that it’s a futile quest to hit a moving target, that it can be crippling, and that it gets in the way of actually doing the work.
But I still couldn’t turn it off because I thought that perfect meant beautiful. I told myself that, if I aimed for anything less than perfect, my writing would suck.
Now, I think the opposite. Perfect and beautiful aren’t the same thing. Perfect often degrades the work product. It’s the flaws, the imperfections, the roughness around the edges that generate the beauty.
Let me explain.
Perfectionism is primarily fueled by a desire for external approval. It’s an indulgence. We’re afraid that if we expose our flaws, we’ll stop getting our daily dose of approvals. So we puff ourselves up and create curated positive portrayals of our imperfect and flawed lives. We round off the edges, airbrush the negatives, and present a perfect image to the public that we carefully nurture and maintain.
Here’s an example. YouTube is filled with videos filmed by personal trainers who move seamlessly from one intense exercise to the next without so much as taking a breath. I huff, puff, and disappear into a puddle of sweat while trying to follow what I’m convinced is a robot performing impossible reps and sets.
Yes, that’s the word: Robot. Perfection is for robots. Human beings come with flaws.
When we cover up these flaws, we also conceal what makes us human. About a year ago, I gave my weekly newsletter a facelift by adding a fancy headshot, photos, and graphics. My open rates — which track how many of my subscribers open my emails — plummeted. The open rates recovered only after I went back to a simple text format that looks more like a rough email from a friend.
It turns out that people want the pig without the lipstick.
It’s like Rocky and Apollo boxing after hours in the gym when everyone leaves. That’s the real, raw stuff. Everything else is a show.
Many Navajo rugs have mistakes in them — distortions in the patterns, lines, and shapes. Some say that these mistakes are intentionally crafted as a reminder of human imperfection. But others suggest that the mistakes aren’t intentional. What’s intentional is “the desire not to go back and fix them.” These mistakes, woven into the fabric, are left to stand.
These rugmakers know what’s obvious: An imperfect, hand-crafted rug with a story is far more beautiful than one manufactured to perfection in a factory.
The Japanese call this concept “wabi-sabi.” It’s one of those beautiful foreign words that has no equivalent in English. As Richard Powell explains, wabi-sabi acknowledges three realities: “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
I’m not talking about the type of fake imperfection that makes blue jeans look weathered or a Crate & Barrel chair look antique. Manufactured imperfections are easy to spot. You know them when you see them. It’s the authentic imperfection — like this video of a personal trainer who openly exposes her exhaustion during exercise — that makes you want to tell the world about her.
On a podcast, the writer and musician Derek Sivers tells a terrific story on point. He once received a sampler CD of unknown artists. As he listened to the CD in the background, one song stopped him in his tracks.
It was a woman singing Leaving Las Vegas. As she reached a pitch, her voice audibly cracked. Like the Navajo rugmakers, she left in that little fault in the finished CD. “There were 15 other artists in that CD that I’ll never remember,” says Sivers. “But I remember that.” Remember he did, as that unknown artist later made waves across the globe as Sheryl Crow.
In a world obsessed with perfection, the imperfect stands out. The visible exhaustion in a trainer, the typo in a writer’s article, the crack in a singer’s voice all expose a creator’s humanity for all to see.
In that moment, they become relatable.
Yes, they’re not perfect. But they’re beautiful.
Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor and bestselling author. Click here to download a free copy of his e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).