Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Imperfection as a core ingredient of progress






The illusion of perfection and the often painful  quest of individuals under social influence for this "ideal". Two areas on which I could write a lot because it's been my way of doing in the past. Now I just celebrate imperfection as the best engine for progress ever invented because I think a perfect life without any imperfections would be an imperfect life almost by definition. At least it would be a life that would rob us of fantastic opportunities to evolve and grow.

However, it seems that in some of our social groups or societies the very idea of failure or imperfection is sometimes enough to cause intense reactions. Some people choose to distance themselves from other people's imperfections and therefore choose to distance themselves from the people who they see as embodying them. But a person is not their behaviour nor their performance... Other people choose to blame or cooly underline the imperfection of others... Games of the shadow as Carl Jung would perhaps say.

What prompts this post, aside from my own personal path which is perfectly imperfect or perhaps imperfectly imperfect, is an article published by a Greek doctor in the Public Library of Science (an open-access scientific journal that is worth paying a visit to). John P. Ioannidis studied why most published research findings are wrong and identified factors that seem to favour this imperfection of our world. Nice to know if we are to use this as feedback. "It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false" according to the author. Well, I believe that sentence remains accurate if you replace the words "claimed research findings" by the words "of the claims of anyone of us". And that still does not mean that we should stop thinking, claiming, arguing, writing, speaking, discussing... well, living. While I am really OK about continuous improvement, I am far less happy
with self-righteous "judges of Truth and Knowledge" as Einstein put it.

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked
by the laughter of the gods. - Albert Einstein

So let's try to celebrate all those who...

  • try stuff that does not work 'cause that's how we get to stuff that works. Real life is not always like the beautiful success stories we are constantly told about ('How Mr X became an instant pop music icon' or 'The innate scientific talent of Ms Y');

  • try stuff that works differently than expected 'cause that's how we got cool new products many times over;

  • honor truth in practice by daring to show themselves as they are with all their imperfections 'cause they add taste to real life. An example of such a person is a guy called Thierry Janssen (meet him on his site and read the awesome stuff he writes)...

And that includes scientists who sometimes publish research that turns out to be wrong, journalists who happen to publish articles that are inaccurate, politicians who fail to implement 100% of what they promised during a campaign and many others who are only human. And yet magnificently human. Splendily imperfect and therefore truly perfect in a way. I believe every single person does their very best moment by moment to satisfy criteria that are important to them.

Now, sometimes it's useful to...

  • think about the relevance of a criterion, or

  • the concrete way (behaviour, action, attitude) in which someone attempts to satisfy that criterion, or

  • the beliefs that underpin someone's choices, or

  • whether all required capabilities are in someone's possession as they embark on an enterprise

It's all a matter of objective and intention. It's a matter of whether we choose to view failure and imperfection as a life sentence or as simple feedback that can be used to adapt ways and means. It's a matter of attitude towards our fellow human beings. At the end of the day I choose to see someone else's mistake, imperfection, failure as being also my own. That's an ingredient of progress in my opinion.


  1. Randomly ran across your blog tonight and found this post quite enlightening considering I had written something similar on mine. I agree with you completely. Here's to progress!! Cheers!

  2. If imperfections did not appear in the original plasma that followed the big bang, no galaxies, planets and living things would have ever existed.
    The whole universe would have been a uniform distribution of matter and energy - dub it: a huge boring place!

  3. Right on David! Fully agree with you. Thanks for these thoughts!