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I stumbled on some people writing smart stuff about the very problems I’d been dealing with alone: too much content, outdated content, hard-to-manage content, useless content.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.