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Finding peace with the imperfect process

Perhaps because I’m in the final stages of editing for my soon-to-be-released book, Imperfect Courage, I’m struck afresh by how very different the finished product is from the first draft I penned months ago. As I was reading through the copyedit my publisher sent me, I found myself shaking my head in awe. Chapters actually have a flow to them. Paragraphs actually make sense. Redundancies have been eliminated. The book is—dare I say it?—good. It’s such an unlikely outcome, given how my book started! That baby was ugly when it was first born.

I bring this up because what I’ve recently experienced with bookmaking can apply to so much of life. You and I both have endeavors that we long to pursue but never do, for fear of “messing up.” We believe that not only should every outcome be perfect, but that our process to get to that outcome must be perfect too. It’s a lethal expectation to hold.

My family recently took a trip to Italy, and while in Florence, we carved out time to see Michelangelo’s statue of David. As we looked on in awe, our tour guide told us that as Michelangelo laid on his death bed, he told his assistants to burn everything he had created that wasn’t perfect—all his sketches, all his ideas-in-process, all his mostly-carved marble that wasn’t complete. His assistants did as they were told, which means that today we can’t see anything of Michelangelo’s imperfect, vulnerable process. All we can see of his work is those objects that he deemed close enough to perfection to be viewed by the public. Michelangelo thought that the beauty of his work lay in its final form; but there is incredible beauty in the messy, the unfinished, the work-in-progress, too. When all we show others are our end results, we discourage them from creative pursuit. When we’re honest about our difficulties, our setbacks and false starts, we help elevate vulnerability above perfection and openness above pizzazz.

 

 

Contrast that experience with one I had a few months ago, when I was at a comedy club to see a pair of comedians who write for a late-night show. These two men are at the top of their game; they know how to tell a good joke. But this particular set was designed to help them fine-tune their new material, which meant that the audience got a peek behind the “creative” curtain. Rather than presenting a perfectly polished finished product to us, the comedians had their laptops open on stage and often referenced the screens for jokes in progress. “God, that punchline didn’t land,” one or the other of them would say when things didn’t go as planned—and despite the raw, unfinished quality of their performance, that transparency made us laugh. In the end, it felt as though we’d spent the evening not being entertained, but being engaged by intimate friends.

Michelangelo may not have allowed anyone to see his process, but there is always a process, right? And when we let people in, we not only grow our own vulnerability quotients, but we empower others to grow as well. People occasionally look at Noonday’s success and ask me, “How did you do it, Jess?” And while it would be easy to smile, take the implied compliment, and tell them that I’m just #blessed, I choose to shoot straight. “Look,” I tell them, “things may look polished now, but our beginnings were anything but. We officed out of my guest bedroom, and my business partner’s office chair was the toilet in the adjoining bathroom. Things weren’t pretty at first, but I’m glad we went through those unpolished times. Because it’s only by passing through them and surviving that we’ve been able to grow Noonday into what we always hoped it would be.”

Our process is far from over, I should mention. And yet based on where previous seasons of vulnerability have led us, I know that the bumps and bruises we’re racking up with be worth it in the end. Let someone into your process today—I dare you. Tell them what you’re learning, where you’re struggling, how you’re faring, a secret dream. Give them a glimpse into your in-process-ness, and see if something magical doesn’t unfold.