Perfection really isn’t perfect anymore

I used to consider perfection the pinnacle of professional competency. It was not only desirable but I believed it to be achievable as well. In all the years I spent chasing perfection I never stopped to question the legitimacy of this lofty goal. I tried to excel perfectly at different skills, subjects and within my role as a leader. Like most perfectionists, I realized over time that perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact perfection is overrated and ultimately unachievable.

My burden began to lift with the epiphany that I was no longer living in a closed system. In a closed system control is easy – the number of variables is finite. Even if it takes time to understand all the elements that make up the system once they are known, mastery is possible. We can develop a perfect response to each set of variables.

During the ‘90s the boundaries between my organization and its external environment began to weaken for a variety of reasons – not the least of which was the advance of the Internet and subsequently more interdependent systems. As the boundaries disappeared I realized I was operating in a new system – one that was open rather than closed. Open systems are dynamic by nature. The variables we need to understand, unlike the limited number in closed systems, are infinite and always expanding. Wild cards are thrown in the mix and obstacles grow by leaps and bounds, mutating problems and clashing systems that make existing in an open system very unpredictable. Suddenly I realized that when everything’s in flux, perfection has a short shelf life.

Open systems dislike perfection

In a closed system practice made perfect. It was only a matter of time and dedication to master a certain subject or skill, so it was worth spending 5 or 10 years to fine tune an approach or leadership style – perfection would last for decades in a closed system. However, in an open system this simply isn’t possible. Because they are dynamic and continually expanding, open systems are constantly changing. We can still try to achieve perfection but even if we get it, the definition of perfection could change in ten seconds.

Nature teaches us to embrace our perfect imperfection

As I looked to nature for guidance on leadership in a dynamic, interdependent, open system, I noticed the huge potential nature has to teach us about valuing experimentation over perfection.

First, nature experiments constantly but only continues with what works. Experimentation is wildly different from perfection. In experimentation you try different things, expanding possibilities and relying on learning to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Over time pursuing perfection makes us rigid thinkers – and severely limits the innovation and risk-taking that help expand our skills and help our organizations grow.

Second, nature molds form to fit function. Nature is a dynamic, open system. It constantly changes form when that transformation benefits the purpose of the system. Investment in a specific form isn’t a good reason for nature to force it to continue “as-is.” Imagine a stream that starts from melting snow and changes as it makes its way toward the pull of the sea. That stream changes form when needed. It doesn’t conform to any one form specifically. When we pursue a specific form relentlessly, we’re really pursuing perfection. When the context changes, a form may no longer fit the function and needs to be let go.

Nature is adaptive, constantly learning and evolving. In the 3.8 billion years nature has inhabited and formed this planet, it has let go of billions of forms that no longer serve its larger purpose of creating conditions conducive to sustaining life for generations. The fact that we still have life on earth proves nature’s ability to adapt and learn is a success. Perfection is not nature’s goal. Nature focuses on evolution. Therefore, nature experiments and adapts according to results.

We’d be wise to learn from this lesson and apply it to our professional development. Let go of perfection and embrace experimentation and the adaptation, learning and enjoyment of the dynamic nature of organizations.