Beautiful Imperfection

I wish I could draw like a 6 year old.   It is a personal development goal I take very seriously.  People who know me are often puzzled by this rather odd developmental objective.  “Of course you can draw like a 6 year old” they try to re-assure me “your drawings are very good.”  Whilst this positive encouragement is nice to hear I have to disagree with its validity.  I simply can’t draw like a 6 year old because I am 40!  I no longer engage with the world in the same way that a 6 year old does and, no matter how hard I try, I no longer have a 6 year old ‘eye’.  A 6 year old has learnt just enough to draw things that are recognisable but has not yet been sucked into complying with the social expectations of what ‘good’ art should look like – they simply draw the way in which they see the world.

My own 6 year old daughter is my creativity mentor and Chief of Imagination for CSS and she regularly produces a stream of artistic masterpieces for me to use in my work.  I am often also treated to musical compositions, plays and improvised games – all of which bring me much joy and make me feel truly alive.  Whilst there is of course a proud-parent bias in how I view my daughter’s work, I have come to realise that my obsession with the style of her creations isn’t solely because I am her father.  There is something about the quality of her work and the work of most children that fascinates me.  A quality I have come to call beautiful imperfection – a way of expressing oneself that is exceptionally beautiful because of, not in spite of, its flaws.  This is a reason why I so enjoy the artwork of the cartoon Adventure Time and the music of Daniel Johnston along-side many others I consider creative geniuses.

It seems to me that, as adults, we devote a lot of our time and energy to ironing out imperfections, rounding any rough edges in order to attain faultlessness due to a shared social belief that this is what the world demands of us.  Ironically it is this need for perfection that stifles the creative spirit of the average human being and inhibits us from giving the world our best work.  We either don’t begin or give up trying something because we have no guarantee of perfection or we strive so hard to achieve perfection that we burn up lots of energy and fall out of love with whatever it is we are trying to achieve.  I certainly experience the latter regularly with my own writing!  I have, however, come to realise that the concept of beautiful imperfection is more than simply a way of encouraging people who believe they are not creative to relax into their natural, obvious abilities.  The very fact that something is proudly and boldly imperfect, such as a child’s drawing, seems to convey extra meaning over and above the words, images or actions presented .

I am suspicious that perfection unconsciously conveys a false sense of safe-certainty, control and order whereas imperfection implies that things are not as ‘concrete’ and rather more uncertain and unpredictable than we maybe like to admit.  I discovered this by accident when I made the choice three years ago to hand draw as much of my work as possible.  Even if I am required to use Powerpoint I hand draw/write everything on paper and then scan it in and project it on a big screen which magnifies the imperfections in my work ten fold –  my wording is often a bit wonky, the letters are inconsistent in shape and size and the images are far from professionally produced clip art.  When I first started to do this I noticed that people seemed to engage with the messages I was conveying in a subtly different way.  For a start, people seemed to smile more at the style of presentation but, more profoundly, they seemed to engage with the content as if it were a ‘serving suggestion’, an idea or a thought to consider but to hold lightly as opposed to an absolute truth to be wrestled with.  People seemed to be more willing to engage in curious conversation and debate, chewing over the ideas and making their own, unique sense of them.  To me it seemed a very different response to when I presented things in a more polished way which tended to result in people simply regarding what I was saying as a truth to either be accepted or rejected as the perfection in presentation style unconsciously implied some sort of idealistic certainty in the message.

I’ve noticed that the facilitators who have most influenced me have been those who model beautiful imperfection in their work.  They are wise, insightful, responsive, spontaneous but they also ‘show their workings’, share their confusion, admit to their mistakes and have overt conversations with each other in front of participants about how things are going, damping any projections of perfection and control others may be throwing their way.  In other words they come across as human beings.  I strive to embody this as much as possible in my group facilitation work as I feel it changes the power dynamics of the interaction from parent-child or teacher-student to something far more mutual, lively and insightful.  It turns workshops from being something I lead or run into something that I jointly participate in.

I developed an eye for Beautiful Imperfection when I began The Giraffe Project earlier this year.  The idea of the project was simply to ask 100 people, aged 5-95, to draw a giraffe.  I had no real interest in the quality of the pictures, I simply wanted to see if people could let go and enjoy the process.  (I also explored some early thoughts around the word ‘fun’ in this experiment).   I can still remember the joy I felt as I opened each envelope that was returned to me and I saw the wonderfully unique creation within.  This joy grew and grew as I saw more and more giraffes with wonky necks, unusual heads and bodies of all shapes and sizes.  The online Giraffe Project gallery is, to me, an embodiment of beautiful imperfection and I get far more joy from it than I would from looking at 100 anatomically perfect drawings.  (I may as well look at a collection of photos!)

Beautiful imperfection is about seeing flaws as an undeniable expression of what it means to be  a human being.  It is about regarding our own imperfections not as a weakness but as a unique gift that has the power to inspire others.  Is it about gently letting go of the tyranny of perfection, certainty and control and embracing a way of being that is compassionately and beautifully imperfect.

I want to end this blog with a short lesson from my Creativity Mentor who decided she wanted to have a go at playing along with the music that my wife and I had at our wedding – Pachabel’s Cannon.  This is a piece of music any non-piano playing adult would likely not attempt due to believing they could not achieve anything near perfection but she achieved in a beautifully imperfect way.