Embracing the Flaws

Let’s agree on one thing: nobody’s perfect. See, that wasn’t that hard. Well, maybe it was hard. From the moment we entered law school, we’ve been taught that the objective is to be perfect Perfect in what we do, say and write. Perfect in our analysis and in finding the flaws in everything we do, in everything our opponents do, and even in predicting the future (also known as anticipating every possible event or circumstance in the future. Perhaps this drive toward perfections is one of the major reasons that the practice of law can be so stressful. For purposes of this article, I hope you’ll indulge me on the reality that no one is perfect. But if we know this to be true, why are we always working so hard to be perfect? It seems to me that the pursuit of perfection is not only doomed to failure, but also sets you up for stress (behind the false sense of control) that adds nothing to your lives, your efforts or your outcomes. I could go on and on about the false sense of control, but this article is about perfection – well, actually the reality of the lack of perfection.

Now, I have been told by some people (including many lawyers) that they think pursuing perfection is a good thing because (even if they fail) it doesn’t make sense to proceed with a goal of anything less than perfection. However, if you know it’s not practically achievable (and that it’s also subject to individualized definitions about what is perfect), doesn’t it make more sense to set some goal other than perfection?

For today, I’m not talking about setting goals other than perfection. While I am encouraging you to dump the pursuit of perfection (and thus dump the stress, distraction and negative impact that comes with the pursuit), I actually want to encourage you to embrace the idea of flaws and flawed performance (the most true reality). What you say? “Jeff, you should know better and as a lawyer I can’t possibly embrace flaws and flawed performance. After all, the entire practice of law, including our ethical obligations and liability insurance, commands us to be perfect.”

Certainly, that’s the mindset we have and one that most of us were guided to from the moment we began practicing law, but is it really true. An even better question is not whether it’s true (that the goal should be perfection), but whether we can accept the paradox that our goal might be perfection while simultaneously acknowledging that true perfection is not possible. As F. Scott Fitzgerald offered, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” With this paradox in mind – hoping for perfection in an imperfect world – I offer a different perspective on imperfection and flaws, which will serve you well on the journey to reducing stress and enhancing satisfaction in the practice of law.

To make this point, I offer kintsugi, the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Rather than throw out the damaged piece as imperfect, the pottery is repaired leaving beautiful seams of gold glinting in the cracks of the ceramic. This repair method celebrates the piece’s unique history by emphasizing the fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing the artifact with new life. The art of kintsugi is related to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which calls for finding beauty in or embracing the flawed or imperfect. In essence, the repaired pottery is more beautiful repaired than it was when it was intact (perfect).

What if life is more about kintsugi than perfection? What if you’re more likely to achieve your goals and objectives by being committed to them, diligently pursuing them and acknowledging that you (and your efforts) will be flawed? What if your flawed efforts (and what you learn from them – the “gold”) are the most important and impactful parts of the process? Most important is this reality – you will always (yes I said always) learn and grow more from and through your mistakes, rather than from your successes.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that you fail on purpose, although sometimes I wonder if that approach would produce better and less stressful results. There are certainly things in life where failure is essential to success. I remember the first time that I tried paddle boarding. It looked much easier than it was (at least for me), and I went with my sister and her family, all of whom were already quite proficient. We went out into the Intercoastal in Florida on the paddle boards, and I fully acknowledge that I was doing my best just to NOT fall. Frankly, I wasn’t enjoying it much, my body was hurting from the clenched muscles seeking to stay on the board, and I wasn’t relaxed at all (I was just the opposite).

Shortly into the experience, my brother-in-law paddled by me and pushed me into the water. I was ticked off, but he quickly said “it’s important that you fall in and get back up on the board. Then you’ll know what’s it’s like, and you’ll be able to relax.” While I’d like to deny it, he was right. It was important that I fall (fail) in order to be successful.

Many things in life are the same way (e.g. learning to ride a bike, skating, etc.) – falling down is essential in order to succeed. It’s important that we fail – not only to learn, but to make us better (physically, mentally, intellectually and emotionally) in the process of pursuing whatever it is that we pursue. Think about this in terms of how you delegate work to and empower less experienced lawyers. While we certainly have to always look out for our clients’ interests, no lawyer ever gets better by merely “practicing” since we don’t know what we know (or don’t know) until we’re under fire in real life situations.

Every trial lawyer gives their first opening statement, takes their first deposition, cross-examines their first witness and gives their first closing argument. Likewise, every business lawyer negotiates their first contract, structures their first transaction, and navigates their first closing. The point is that no lawyer can or will be perfect, but they’ll hopefully grow towards excellence throughout their career. Rather than focusing so much attention on perfection which creates massive amounts of stress in the vain pursuit of the impossible, you can commit to excellence while acknowledging the reality of imperfection and flaws. This is certainly true in the practice of law and even more true in life, with family and in relationships.

Ernest Hemingway said: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” Most important, those who are strong at the broken places got there by choice – the choice of what to do after the break, mistake or imperfection. As lawyers, we like to believe that we are intelligent and wise, and this topic is a great opportunity to show off both by embracing the paradox of pursuing excellence while embracing the reality and learning opportunities from imperfection.

As you set and pursue your objectives and goals, remember kintsugi and embrace the flaws in you and in the process. You may just find that embracing the flaws and imperfections will be just what you need in order to proceed and achieve brilliantly (even if not perfectly), while at the same time reducing stress and enjoying more.

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