Since last June, I have followed an arbitrary, self-imposed schedule to write four articles each month. I’ve kept to this schedule and haven’t broken from it – until last week.
I didn’t even realize I had broken my schedule until it was a day too late. The day following the deadline, it dawned on me for no apparent reason. Being preoccupied with a move to a new city, I completely forgot to write. The streak was over.
Coincidentally, that same week, I read an article on the topic of failure. Specifically, it talked about the benefits of letting kids fail. The opening paragraph summarizes its recommended view of failure:
[…] first, to give ourselves the permission to take on challenges where we might very well fail; second, to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don’t work out. This is, I argue, vital on a personal level, as well as vital for the economy, because that’s where innovation and growth come from.
What would the world look like if we never tried anything unless we knew we would succeed? In short, we would not reach our full potential because we’d never push against its boundaries. This is what the author observes happening to kids in our current culture. One B in high school might doom their chances at the perfect college which will in turn doom their chances to a perfect career and any hope of a good life. Or so the thinking goes.
We need permission to be imperfect. As designers, we need it doubly so. There is no great design that is not preceded by failure. It’s a lesson I wish I had learned sooner.
Before learning to embrace failure as part of the design process, the natural inclination is to hide our work. Don’t let anyone else see it until it’s finished and perfect.
We feel this way because, like it or not, designers are judged by their work. It’s not the resume that counts, it’s the work. This is how it should be. However, the worth of our work is too easily confused with the worth of our selves. When these two things are confused, critiques on our work feel too close and too personal for comfort. We seek to hide our imperfection.
Ironically, however, imperfection is where the best design comes from. You have to try, fail, and try again. Each time you try, you get closer to a more elegant solution. The term is iteration in design jargon. The sooner you can get something out on paper, the sooner you can begin refining the idea or realizing you need to start with a different idea altogether.
It’s the same with writing. First drafts are almost always terrible. But the first draft gets the ideas out. It’s a whole lot easier to edit a poorly written text with the seeds of good ideas than it is to edit a blank piece of paper. Getting out those first, scattered thoughts provides a crude outline of what one is actually writing about and trying to say. That’s not always apparent at the start.
It’s the same for design: the solution only becomes clear through a process of creation and failure. The only way to arrive at a great product is to travel down the path of imperfection.
Have I followed my schedule of four articles a month perfectly? No. Have all the articles I have written been perfect, even good? No again. But am I closer to reaching my potential as a writer? Yes. If I waited to write until I could do it perfectly, I never would. I’m getting better because I’m writing. Not the other way around.