By David Quigley, MSW

In traditional Navajo woven rugs there will be a deliberate imperfection that looks like a mistake. The weaver might incorporate a line of a different color thread from the outer edge of the pattern into the edge of the rug. This imperfection is so that the spirit of the weaver does not get trapped in the center of the rug in the tight and perfect pattern. I am wondering if there might be an aspect of this perspective that can help us “from getting trapped in the spirit” of perfection, production, achieving, accomplishing?

We often encounter high-performing leaders with track record of high achievement and successful accomplishment. We often hear that we should strive to give 110% to a project. When does drive become over-drive? How often does our perfectionistic capacity get over-exercised? And how might we counteract this, or at least give it an occasional and well-needed rest?

I once observed a highly trained, well-respected, and very accomplished clinician who had a habit of practicing slight eccentricities. He would also take an intentional ‘one down position’ in a conversation. Almost like he was taking a bit of a Detective Columbo approach to his work.

These habits, or should I say practices, made him more approachable, less intimidating, more down to earth. They were endearing, too, and they were intentional. This was his way of not taking himself too seriously and increasing his effectiveness in communicating with others.

I thought of him as I contemplated the Navajo weavers and their intentional imperfection. How can we use this idea as a soothing balm to the stresses of achieving, producing, and accomplishing and, therefore, help to regain that delicate work-life balance?

Here are a few ideas to help you incorporate imperfections in your work:

Resolve to make a mistake once a week
I knew a clinical supervisor once that would assign the highest performing students in her charge to make one mistake a week. Of course, this was not to be a mistake that would negatively affect patient care or outcomes; rather, simpler little mistakes that were, nonetheless, painful for the perfectionistic elements of ourselves. For instance, things like:

  • an intentional misspelling in an email
  • mispronouncing a word
  • putting a stamp on an envelope crookedly (I dare you to try it)

Be deliberately imperfect

  • A nurse leader I knew would wear socks or shoes of two different colors
  • A CEO that would always leave a button undone on his button-down shirt as a reminder for him to not be too much of a “stuffed shirt” or “buttoned-downed” type of guy

Add a bit of lightness of heart to your work
My first hospice patient was a collector of silly puns and jokes. His motto was: my illness might be critical, but it doesn’t have to be serious.

Happy face

In our work we often, all too often actually, encounter high-performing leaders who are showing signs of burnout and or compassion fatigue. They are under tremendous pressure. Over time, that can have significant negative effects on our well-being and performance.

A mentor once told me he felt that, as we age, we should develop our eccentricities. So, in the spirit of doing serious work but not falling prey to perfectionism, I encourage you—no, I triple dog dare you—to practice intentional imperfections as a way to take your work seriously but keep your heart light.