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Unlearning Lesson #13

Posted in Unlearning Lesson

Unlearning Lesson #13: Practice Intentional Imperfection

Perfecting oneself is as much unlearning as it is learning.” –Dijikstra

Question #13: If a poor man can make one cigarette from six butts, how many can he make from thirty-six butts?

Seven. He makes six cigarettes, smokes them, and uses the six new butts to make a seventh cigarette.

In the rush to calculate the answer, it is easy to overlook the creation of seventh cigarette. In this same way, it is easy to overlook how quantity can have a quality all of its own.

In an often told story, a ceramics teacher once asked half her class to concentrate on producing as many cups as possible. To the other half, she instructed them to focus on quality. At the end of the class which group of students do you think produced the higher quality cup? The half that focused on quantity.

The reason is because the “quantity” group learned from their mistakes and continually improved while the quality group theorized about perfection, fretted over the smallest of details, and chose not to take any imaginative risks for fear of failure.

As society continues to become more saturated with information and the means by which to disseminate this information (i.e. smartphones, social networks, instant messaging, email, etc.), it is easy to fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis.” All too often, people and organizations put off making decisions because they are under the illusion that additional information will lead to a better decision and, thus, a better and higher quality product. This is not true and it’s a habit or belief which needs to be unlearned.

In a study, a group of experts was once asked to rate five jellies (jams) according to taste. Their rankings corresponded closely to the most popular consumer brands. When they were asked to rate the jellies on a variety of characteristics including aroma, texture and spreadability, however, they ranked less popular brands higher because they assigned more value to characteristics, such as spreadability, which were not really that important to the end customer. In this case, a wealth of information lead to a poor decision.

In an era where it’s easy to communicate with colleagues halfway around the world and gain their input, it is possible certain people will provide keen and useful insights but it is also just as plausible they will raise questions, concerns, barriers and obstacles which serve no useful purpose. (For example, if your job is to focus on making a jelly that can be easily spread it is only natural to want to delay the release of a new jelly until it is perfectly spreadable—even if that trait isn’t critical to the product’s ultimate success.) To circumvent this conflict, it is worth unlearning perfection and, instead, embrace the habit of practicing imperfection.

To better understand this concept, consider the practice of Persian Rug weavers who intentionally include imperfections in their rugs. Their purpose is two-fold. First, the habit keeps the weavers humble and reminds them that while true perfection can be pursued it can rarely be attained. Second, the habit makes it easier for them to ship a product to market because they don’t needlessly worry about creating the perfect product. As a result, they end up producing more rugs and getting progressively better with each one they create.

Amish quilt-makers and Navajo artisans employ similar policies with regard to their wares but an old Persian proverb best captures the essence of practicing imperfection: “A Persian Rug is perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise.”

The best way to get better is to stop worrying about perfection and, counter-intuitively, begin practicing imperfection because it will actually get you closer to the goal of perfection.

Homework assignment #13: Find an area in your life where you would like to be more productive. For instance, perhaps you’d like to write more, produce more art or music, or start a new habit or hobby. Next, begin practicing imperfection.

P.S. If you would like to read 38 additional “unlearning lessons,” consider picking up a copy of my new book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future.

Interested in other “unlearning” lessons? Check out these older posts:
Unlearning Lesson #12: Think Small
Unlearning Lesson #11: If It Goes Without Saying, Question It


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