The Imperfectionist

You know those childhood memories that are burned so deep you can remember the shirt you were wearing, or the way the grass smelled? I’ve got a few: The Time I Fell Off My Bike Riding With No Hands; The Time I Couldn’t Keep My Balance On The Rope Tow And All The Skiers Stared.

But there’s a particularly unremarkable one that’s always haunted me. I was in the first grade, and we were making collages of cut-out magazine pictures to accompany the story we were reading. Except I wasn’t cutting anything out—I was just sitting there, vetoing every picture I came across. Nothing was good enough. Nothing lived up to the perfect collage in my head.

While everyone else shared theirs with the class, I just sat there, empty-paged and ashamed. I wanted to hide.

Two decades later, I was still hiding. It was 2008, and I was fumbling my way through mountains of messy web content for an agency in Arizona when I stumbled on some people writing smart stuff about the very problems I’d been dealing with alone: too much content, outdated content, hard-to-manage content, useless content. They even had a name for their work. Content strategy.

I wanted desperately to join them.

Instead, I told myself my projects were boringly provincial and my examples embarrassingly amateurish. The prospect of sharing them was mortifying.

Eventually I forced myself to write a blog post. Then another. And somehow people responded to the things I had been so petrified to write about: How to make content work for mobile, deal with the messy people problems behind most companies’ publishing workflows, and break down decades of document-centric thinking.

I still didn’t have the answers, though. I’d simply become an imperfectionist.

How the real work gets done

It’s long seemed normal to aim for perfection, and to avoid showing our work until we’ve achieved it—to unveil only polished comps, post only gleaming case studies, give only perfect conference talks.

Reality is rarely so neat and tidy.

We might be restrained by budgets and timelines. Our best ideas might be squelched by a bad boss or nervous client. We might be making gut-wrenching decisions, playing referee through interdepartmental squabbling, combatting incompatible technology, or experiencing a seemingly endless line of project hiccups that keep us feeling perpetually off-kilter.

These sorts of headaches and setbacks are more than common. They’re simply what the world, with all of its imperfect people and situations, is like. And by pretending it’s not—carrying on as if we can, in fact, make the web perfect—we’re actually doing everyone a disservice.

If we want to do right by our peers, our clients and colleagues, and even ourselves, it’s time we shake off some of those Type-A tendencies and start sharing our inner imperfectionists with the world.

Real stories really teach

“I could never do that.”

I’ve thought this sentence more times than I care to admit—and I’ll bet I’m not the only one. Every time I’d click a link from some web celebrity’s tweet or see an article expounding some new approach, I was reminded of just how petty my projects were.

What I didn’t realize was that those shining examples probably weren’t perfect, either. They only seemed that way, from a distance, when placed in exactly the right light at exactly the right moment.

That case study for the university website redesign that doubled admission applications? No one was about to mention how hard it was to train the school’s admin staff to use the CMS, or how they’d really wanted to make the site responsive, but just couldn’t convince the dean that it was worth it. That gorgeous app design everyone raved about? The team left out the part about spending six months agonizing over 75 design iterations to get there.

Why aren’t we more honest with one another?

One answer, I suspect, is that doing so triggers our impostor syndrome. You know the feeling: If you let them see you, unvarnished and real, they’ll realize how incompetent you are. You’ll be outed as a fraud, a fake who doesn’t really belong here.

But of course, your brain is lying to you.

Putting our least polished selves out there for our peers to see—admitting, without shame, that we struggled through rough patches and that not everything turned out exactly the way we’d hoped—won’t expose us as impostors. Instead, it’ll make our work feel that much more real—and, in turn, that much easier for others to be inspired by.

When we share imperfection with our colleagues and peers, we help everyone realize they have something to contribute—even people without years of experience, even ideas with holes and unfinished edges.

Perhaps even better, we also begin to recognize that sometimes the richest inspiration comes from sharing our problems, not just our solutions.

Everyone has work to do

It’s not enough to admit imperfection to one another, though. We also have to start admitting it to the people who pay the bills: the clients and internal stakeholders we work with and for.

How many presentations have you been in that ended with flipping over some poster board or flicking forward a Keynote deck, revealing a design that’s completely finished, down to a perfectly placed copyright sign?

In a world where new devices debut nearly daily and we can’t even hope to anticipate our users’ screen sizes, this approach is increasingly falling flat. After all, what’s the point of oohing and ahhing over a picture of a website, perfect as that picture may be, if it doesn’t reflect what your users might actually encounter?

As we embrace responsive design, we’re also starting to embrace a more responsive workflow—one defined less by polished comps and more by prototypes and iterations. But it’s not just a matter of letting go of the grand unveiling.

It’s also about changing the very nature of our roles.

Web professionals are typically brought in to solve web problems: Our homepage is cluttered. Our navigation is broken. Our content is outdated. People are complaining about us on Twitter. These problems may be surfacing as web issues, true, but their origins are usually somewhere much deeper: broken workflows, siloed teams, unclear values, missing vision.

No amount of diagrams or style tiles will fix this.

When our work is only a series of final “deliverables,” we’re pretending that we can fix what’s wrong on the inside. Even worse, we’re sending the message that what we’ve done is magic, and that our clients and bosses both couldn’t and needn’t understand it.

But of course, they must.

If a client sees information architecture as just boxes and arrows rather than a systematic reflection of their business, what will stop them from “throwing up some new pages” rather than considering the implications? If stakeholders see design as a finished product rather than a process, how can we expect the “warm, inviting, personal” branding we achieved with pixels to be reflected in the places it really counts—like support and customer service?

The more we include our clients and stakeholders in the imperfect world of our work-in-progress—the less we hide the messy process behind our end results—more they’ll understand that everything we help them create online has implications for their entire organization.

The more they’ll see that they have work to do, too.

By sharing sketches, live-auditing content, and building prototypes together, we become more than solutioneers. We become facilitators: people with specialty skills who can steer the organization as it rolls up its sleeves, gets to work, and grows.

Confidence versus ego

It takes courage to share our true selves with others—to serve up for inspection all the bruises and wrinkles that make us human. It’s no wonder we’ve tried so hard to hide behind carefully edited portfolios.

But when we only promote our shiniest pieces, we don’t really build confidence. We build shallowness. We start measuring our work in terms of the fame we get out of it, rather than the heart we put into it. We start mistaking praise for progress, and we take projects or jobs that look good on paper (or balance sheets), but do little to help us learn and grow.

We shove aside our person in favor of our persona.

Ironically, the more we allow this to happen—the more we let our growing egos devour our greater selves—the more we’ll rely on others’ validation to believe we’re OK, and the less confident we’ll be in our own capabilities.

You can sense the impostor syndrome creeping in already.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Research professor Brené Brown spent years talking to hundreds of people about their feelings of connection and disconnection. She found, in all her research, that the only thing separating those who felt a strong sense of love and belonging from those who didn’t was a sense of worthiness—the feeling that they deserved to belong.

But what makes us feel worthy in the first place? Brown identified a simple, single theme:

These folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect…they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection. The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating… They just talked about it being necessary.

Sharing your imperfections with colleagues and clients is the only way you can build authentic connections in your work and career—and, as Brown learned, “connection is why we’re here. It gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”

It’s only when you are vulnerable within the web community will you truly feel at home in the web community. And it’s that sense of belonging that will best ground you in honest contributions, and safeguard you against the endless draw of egos and accomplishments.

Embracing your imperfectionist

It’s not easy to broadcast our own flaws, of course. Not easy to hold our construction paper up for the whole class to see—to say, “here’s what I made. It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.”

I still wince when rereading my published work. Still sometimes wake up terrified that I’ve been faking my expertise all along. Still cringe at telling clients the truth about what I can fix, and what I can’t.

I probably always will. Because even in being vulnerable—in having the courage to let others see me, really see me—I remain, above all, imperfect.

We all are, though. It’s what makes us human. What keeps us striving to do better. And what connects us to one another.

I hope we can start acting like it.

58 thoughts on “The Imperfectionist

  1. Wow, how readily I can identify with this. It seems in the last few years that the collective web community fell away from highlighting the design process and presenting the polished finished product. Very recently, there has been a pulling back of the curtain, and we are realizing once again that there is a mountain of thought and effort behind those finished designs and sites. That’s the part that we need to become proud of again, digging in and doing the work.

    I come from outside of the web bubble, and it’s most likely that I will never be a superstar within this world. It is precisely because of this that I can feel fine about presenting works in progress or showing all the steps of iteration it takes to get my work to where it’s at now. No reputation to uphold yet.

    We need to remember the vulnerability you mention here, Sara, as we do our work, as that’s the same feeling that our clients feel as they turn to us to help them make their web projects manageable.

  2. I agree with a lot of this, but there’s also a balance that needs to be struck, especially as a professional consultant. People hire us for our expertise, and we need to be confident that we have something valuable to contribute. That doesn’t mean we have to perfect, but we have to contribute something that wasn’t already there.

    Years ago I had a client in a similar industry – another consulting company – and they insisted that, since they had been unable apply their own methodologies to solving the digital issue they’d hired us for, they wanted to be partners with us, learn about our process, see “how the sausage is made.” But we’d get into meetings with them where we tried to show, not just the results of our work, but the process and thinking along the way, and time after time someone would say “Why are you showing this to us if it’s not done yet?”

    With consulting, there is a bit of magic going on and sometimes that’s part of the need we’re fulfilling. This is not to say that no one in the organization has the knowledge to solve their own problems – but they’re hampered by lack of time, they don’t have a rigorous process, they don’t know how to ask themselves the tough questions, or they have political log jams that are too big to fight through without outside forces. A lot of times that function we fulfill is just as important as being “right.”

  3. Hi Rachel! Sorry your comment didn’t appear, and now I think you’ve tried to recreate it. There was just some lag time because I have comments moderated (due to fairly frequent spam that WordPress can’t seem to filter). (Feel free to delete whichever one represents your view least.)

    This is a really crucial part of the issue, and one I definitely don’t address in this post. Thank you for bringing it up.

    I don’t mean to undercut the importance of bringing outside perspective, of “being the expert.” (And, uh, I do make my living off of being an external voice, so, you know…) I think one of the benefits of being an outside expert is being able to help people see what it’s often hard to see from up close, and then using an experienced hand to guide them through change. You’ve rafted this river before, etc. etc.

    But what frustrates me is when I see people go in with a lot of song and dance about how they are going to solve all the problems. Everyone’s lulled into a false sense of complacency, and so they’re not prepared for the work they need to do, too. So you get a bunch of solutioneers pitching their wonder products, and not enough follow-through from anyone.

    Consultants need to know when to play which hand, though. There are moments for collaboration, moments for tough love, and moments for putting on that can-do smile and convincing a CEO this is The Right Way. Not everyone should see how the sausage is made, but if the people who’ll have to keep the sausage-making machinery running long-term aren’t engaged when you’re explaining the production equipment you’ve installed (and if you don’t think they _ought_ to be engaged), then you’re going to have some safety and health code violations, right?

    Oh man, sorry for what I did to that analogy.

    (Not that sorry.)

    1. Ah, I don’t think I can delete a comment from my side. That’s ok. I will just live with being a little repetitive 🙂

      I totally agree. Promising the quick and easy fix is a bad approach, and counter-productive for our industry as a whole. Ugh. Snake Oil is not good for anyone.

      And these are great points about how the people who are going to maintain the solution need to be brought into the fold as early as possible, and be able to roll up their sleeves and dig into all the nuance and ambiguity that they’re going to have to own from that point forward.

      I suppose everyone needs to figure out how to balance between being an expert and being vulnerable. And I don’t mean to make light of this – allowing some imperfectionism to filter in is a pretty brave step!

  4. This is similar to the common “overnight success” story which took 10 years of hard work to achieve.
    As a writer, I always try to show my best self, to polish things as best I can before presenting. However, in my last writer’s group I had the courage to show a section that was in great need of revision, but I couldn’t see the way out. If we share our failures and solutions which lead to our successes, I think it would help the entire creative community.

  5. I love this because if you take out ‘Information’ from ‘Information Architecture’ you have my career and my fear of presenting my work. (also by replacing web analogies with buildings…) Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  6. I love this post! So many of the people I work with suffer from the thought that if it can’t be perfect then it can’t be done. I’m still trying to work on helping them see that there can be purpose without perfection. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Interesting stuff. I recently lectured to some journalism students about how to freelance — which I’ve been doing since 2006, this time — and shared much of the messiness and struggle that goes into it, whether finding clients, keeping them happy, negotiating fees, asking for more money, whatever. It’s tempting to show up and simply be The Expert, but none of us can really identify with people who are so hermetically sealed and putatively “perfect.” We all struggle!

    When I blog about my working life as a writer — books, journalism — my readers really appreciate my candor about all the BS that’s inside my NYT stories: the crazy-ass PR people; the un-returned calls; the last-minute edits and revisions. It’s real. It doesn’t diminish my authority, It adds to it.

    I think it’s a sign of self-confidence to let the wrinkles show — as long as they’re ironed out beautifully in the end.

  8. I think you speak to a rule writers have long known–just do it. And the first draft will be messy, sometimes even ugly. But it’s a start–which means you’ll usually see it to the finish. It’s the perfectionists whose novel or screenplay never sees the light of day . . .

  9. Reblogged this on 1ofthoselagosboys's Blog and commented:
    i think while striving towards perfection, we ought to bare it at the back of the mind that we might not end up being perfect….but we can get better at what we do everyday…and the need we feel to be perfect…compels us to improve at what we do

  10. Reblogged this on meraki diaries and commented:
    a good read … and very encouraging .. all of us should learn how to embrace our real, inner selves.. its a scary place, yes! .. but its the best place to be in .. to share things with the world in your own individual style
    .. everybody’s perception of perfect is different ..and we can’t please everybody .. just follow your own ethics ..

  11. Response from a Wanna Bee 8)

    Thank you Sara, thank you all!

    Sara Wachter-Boettcher … being vulnerable—in having the courage to let others see me, really see me—I remain, above all, imperfect.

    I’m a wanna Bee lol … really. This was/is my greatest fear!

    Why the reality as stated by John

    John Locke # … Very recently, there has been a pulling back of the curtain, and we are realizing once again that there is a mountain of thought and effort behind those finished designs and sites. That’s the part that we need to become proud of again, digging in and doing the work … Nice thanks! 8)

    … Rachel # … contribute something that wasn’t already there.

    … L. Palmer # … courage to show a section that was in great need of revision, but I couldn’t see the way out. If we share our failures and solutions which lead to our successes, I think it would help the entire creative community.

    Just a few of the many wonderful supporting comments of the reality of work it takes to write what is so easily edified with the spoken work.

    I NEED to write a book, I always dreamed of doing it and I’m not sure why. Now I know, life has thrown me such a personal tragedy that I must get it in print at some point.

    Thank you all, I’m not sure I am the “author” to do my project but what I need to eloquently edify, some realities that many in society will benefit, I just pray can be read some day.


    GrandmaAg 8)

  12. The Imperfectionist… Love this blog! I think is time to embrace our imperfections as part of our uniqueness in this world. It is time to move out of what I call our Dis-Comfort Zone into our real and true Comfort Zone. The place where we truly accept ourselves in order to do the work we need to do and that will allow us to evolve…

  13. Reblogged this on An Expert in Failure and commented:
    This has pretty much been my predicament for the past two years. What I’ve learned, thankfully, is that you can’t write something perfect and sensational the first go. This is the reason I started blogging–to force me to share my writing and get me out of my comfort zone.

  14. I’m loving this post. Personally, I believe in the concept of meaningful collaboration during a work-in-progress project. Especially during the initial stages. Unfortunately, there are many in both the IT and business units of a company who do not. Their expectation is perfection – even when exploring the ‘what ifs’!

  15. Terrific post. A great way to look at things. It is all in our perspective. ‘A PROBLEM DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A PROBLEM’ If you look at it that way a problem is nothing to fear. You either can choose to not engage it or choose to engage it and willingly try to find a solution.

  16. I have struggled with these feelings for quite a long time – which makes it especially hard as I’m just coming out of the “graduate gate” into the “real world.” No one seems to want to believe that I am a work-in-progress; they want to have someone who has a perfectly-polished portfolio and is capable of moving mountains.

    Which, obviously, I can’t lie through my teeth and say I can.

    Your post, however, instructs its reader to continue on, be creative, take chances – even if it “isn’t perfect.” Because not even starting is always doomed to failure.

    Thank you so much for sharing. It was incredibly inspiring!

  17. Reblogged this on I Love My Own Life and commented:
    “You know those childhood memories that are burned so deep you can remember the shirt you were wearing, or the way the grass smelled? I’ve got a few: The Time I Fell Off My Bike Riding With No Hands; The Time I Couldn’t Keep My Balance On The Rope Tow And All The Skiers Stared.”

  18. Sara, this is such a fabulous article. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Many thanks to Cheri for discovering it…

    We human relate with imperfections more than the perfections. God relates with perfections as He is Perfect.

    When I invite people to write for our web-zine they always hesitate to express themselves in typed words. Because they fear their imperfections will be highlighted.

    I ask them to write anything from their own experience which really is not a difficult task to do. Sharing our imperfections help us to be perfect. When we try to be perfect or copy paste perfections from outside we sound PREACHY…

    Thanks again for an eye opening piece… God bless…

    Regards, CP

  19. Yes! I definitely agree, the moment we start coming into contact with our contradictions and imperfections, we start making more sense of our non-binary existence. I love your style of writing and how much thought and effort you put into your posts. I wrote a post on a similar topic and I would love to hear your thoughts if you have any time

    Hope you’re doing well 🙂

  20. Anything less than perfect has not much value in this perfectionist world. I suppose, not even ‘Discover’ likes less polished posts esp. when they are a part of badly done web-sites, for it shows imperfect and uncaring attitude in bloggers. But casual bloggers like me continue to be imperfect for all this is just a hobby right now. So perfectionism is desirable where it matters.

    That said, I’ve worked in broadcasting industry where there are strict deadlines. Perfection was essentially required in speech, written scripts, timing…everything.

    I worked as a teacher. Yes, work has to be great but no one will punish you if less than perfect, It’s not about daily deadlines as in broadcasting.

    I have been a web-developer at one stage. It’s more troublesome as far as mutual dependency and staff coordination is concerned. Attention to detail required nearing the end of projects.

    So it all depends….and varies from field to field.

  21. This is such a great post, thanks for sharing! I spent 12 years of my professional life not daring to say much. But since moving to a new company with an enlightened team (all women may I add!) I feel confident enough to make mistakes. Not constant mistakes of course. But I work hard and it is life. It is not always perfect. What holds us back is the fear of being imperfect.

  22. Great post! Thank you for sharing. I can relate to this, having changed my religious views and moved towards a more skeptic view. I’ve also been writing about my journey on my blog, and showing people that it isn’t always about the destination, but about the journey we take.

  23. Sometimes the tasks are just so overwhelming. But starting with what we have makes a good small step towards getting things done. Like what they say. There is never the perfect moment. But we can choose to work on making the moment towards perfection.

  24. This really resonated with me. It seems I’m constantly battling that ‘must be perfect’ mindset. I feel like an imposter in my work most of the time, and it’s disheartening, but I kind of like the saying “fake it til you make it” too! Complicated beings, we humans are!

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