Perfect Enough

“Nell, you’d be perfect for this panel”

“What panel?”

“Imperfect Leaders”

“Yes, Honi, that is exactly, absolutely, perfectly me.”

My wisdom is coming in, and it doesn’t even hurt. Honi made me happy by thinking of me for this panel. I’ve been thinking about perfection a lot. I’m pinpointing this persnickity word as a possible root of, creative, intellectual, and physical sterility.

From my notes on listetning tto Rebecca Solnit:
become tthe story teller instead of the person being told wha to do

Yes, this is me. I am imperfect, and I am coming to terms with also being a leader–not in a conventional manner, and not as a perfect model, but in that I have influence. While its always hard for me to detect I can never tell if people are justt humoring me when they listen. Am I really making sense or are they just listening because I’m old and they’re supposeed to? I may never know, but either way, people keep dropping by and asking my opinion, so I’m going with it. Leader…

In teaching I have become infamous for my response “It’s perfect enough” which is a way of inviting my meticulous perfectionist-minded students away from working towards some ideally formed product, with excellence in craft, composition and idea, and into the rich dynamic life of the ongoing messy process. What a life! That’s all I know, its continually exciting, and I am evangelical about it.

“Perfect enough” means stop there; I approve; I grant you permission to quit obsessively fussing and worrying. In beginning a drawing in a first year class, I grade my students on the mess they make. They take some time to get used to this counter-culture idea, but I am dead serious. I want to see the lines they corrected, the missmatches, the offness of accuracy and the compesnations. The mess shows me their work, and I see how they are trying. I liken the mess of making to long division–I am really not all that interested in the answer by itself, but rather how YOU discover it. How do YOU think it through? Seeing your thinking (by you showing your thinking) is what I can relate to, learn from and teach to. Indeed I have the unwelcome habit of approaching the careful student with news that her paper is too clean, and she must make more dark marks on it. The mess is the soul of the drawing–it animates the work, the space, the mind of the maker (she gets to let go) and the imagination of the viewer–it drops tthe pretense that we “Know” and let’s us live into “finding out”.

Trying is everything. To be curious and to discover, for me, is the purpose of things.

Perfect Enough.

It’s taken me a long time to embrace this idea. It requires self-awareness, self acceptance, self-laughability, humility, a right-sized personhood. But I swear it makes life so much lighter. I like it.

I’m not much of a beliver in mistakes. For me, everything is information and data. Make a mark, observe what happens (listen to the response of the page), interpret the result, adjust the hypothesis, mark again and repeat (forever). creative process; scientific methtod; socrattic dialogue; growing; learning. It’s very much like a real relationship: make yourself known, however wobbly and unsure, get a response, repeat. We become more solid and confident the more we practice the wobble. We come alive through our mess.

Leading Imperfectly Panel
January 12, 2021, 5 PM EST
Grace Davis
Whitney Brown, Danita Knight, Dereika Pinder-Phillips, Nell Ruby

Responses to prepared questions:

Share with us a story in which you experienced failure. How did you use that experience to move forward?

GOAL: Make great work! Become a famous artist!

REALITY: Make great work! Do not become a famous artist!

LESSON: right-sizing myself, recognizing that I am not all that and also (very important!) neither is anyone else. Who gets to say who is famous? Why is that important? And how does that qualify me, or not? I learn that qualifications are an inside job. What is really important to me? After all, I have to (I get to) live with myself all the time–every second of every day, I am always there for me. Self-reflection and introspection reveal to me that recognition, whcih is important to my feelings of value, is different from fame. Fame is capricious, political, coincidental, unrealistic and almost certainly an immature desire. So what do I really want? THAT IS THE REAL QUESTION? I want to be recognized by people whose opinions and work I respect. These people may or may not own galleries and museums, and may or may not be artists. They are almost certainly, however, involved in the work of living creatively and honestly. I learn that to make my work and have a dialogue with people I respect is rewarding and especially rich perhaps exactly because of its quietude and non-chaotic, non-fame. 

When  I work for the approval of others–imposing external values vs. knowing, and living into my own values, I lose my bearings. I can’t look outside to find my way. I become an imposter!

Have you experienced imposter syndrome? If so, how did you overcome it?

It’s important for this audience to know that every single semester, walking into every single first class, I think to myself: “OMG, what do i know?”.

My mom taught her whole life and recently shared with me that she threw up before every first class. We all worry about expectations of others, and whether we are up to the performance.

We are all imposters, because we are all performing. Tonight I am performing the part of imperfect panelist, a role I feel comfortable in. Yesterday I performed the part of mom taking her kid to the doctor, tomorrow I’ll perform as panicked professor trying to figure out her syllabus.

I try to overcome feeling ingenuine by focusing more on myself–it’s a counter-action. Who gets the power of calling me genuine or not? I think I am definitely the expert on that. The more I get to know myself—what I like and what I value, how I like to spend my time, the less it matters what other people think.

I often employ a great slogan from the 12 step recovery programs:

what other people think about you is none of your business.

What a concept! The idea is that it is your job to worry about yourself–keep your side of the street clean. Be esteemable to yourself, and respect will follow. And if you don’t get it from other people, at least you have it with yourself and your higher power.

Benefits of being authentic to yourself:

  • You don’t have to make anything up, or do anything differently
  • You don’t have to rehearse
  • It’s hard to get it wrong
  • You’re likely to enjoy yourself
  • You ensure that you will attract people who are interested in you and not some character you have to live up to–The more you be you, the more you get discover about you, the more you grow

Have you ever deviated from the path that you thought you would follow? If so, why and what did you learn from that experience?

Hahahaha! As if there were a path!

Despite the academic way, I never had a long term goal. I am an opportunist! I rarely plan, and instead I grab what comes my way and make the best of it. This may indeed also be a sign of immaturity, and my ADD. Lately, I am more inclined to plan.

But the sttory I can give you of failure is person. It is about my first marriage (and subsequent divorce). With the man I refer as to my starter husband.

I thought when I said forever and ever and I meant it. I didn’t realize that I was not a fixed being. I didn’t realize I would always be growing, and growing things change.

What did I learn? To think less in absolutes. With my permanent spouse, our vows more inclusive, and thereby expansive, language: “I promise to use my power for good and not evil” (I thnk this is like an emotional prenuptual agreement.)

Rebecca Solnit on her friend Chip Ward

Who is someone you’ve admired for their vulnerability in leadership?

Here are three people and three incidents.

Nina Faustine is a contemporary artist. I learned about her from The Studio Museum Harlem. She’s a photographer.

series: white shoes, 2016
From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth
The photos feature Faustine, naked except for white pumps, poses in various slave auction and burial sites in NYC.

“A reservoir of goodness–”
In the middle of his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who died during the slaughter on the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charlotsville, President Obama led the congregationo in song. This was a huge “risk” in terms of a political career: politicians don’t sing! But in doing so, he acted on his value as being a human being, in a citizenry. He acted on the call to lead the congregation, and the nation, into Amazing Grace.

“The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” James Baldwin declared on February 18, 1965, in his epochal debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at the University of Cambridge. 

When I watch this 1965 film, I am startled not just by the intellect of Mr. Baldwin, and the way he finessed his argument, but if you watch him as he recieves a standing ovation from the efite WHITE crew at Cambridge–you can see him surprised, and pleased with the response. This inspires me, because Mr. Baldwin lived his very unpopular truth, and accepted Buckley’s invitation to perform in front of this exclusive (white) crowd which I believe Mr. Baldwin believed would be dissagreeable to his message. Instead he is so skilled at his craft and passionate in his delivery that he succeeds above political and social affect.

What is a lesson in imperfection that you would like to offer to the audience?

Perfect is a setup. You can never reach it, so you will “fail”.

Perfect is still and dead and allows no quirk. Perfect is BORING.

It’s the messy, sloppy, unpredictable path that yields the joy.

Perfect is an impediment to the adventurous process, where one might find their own way, make sudden turns, get lost. PLAY! When I care and pay attention, things are perfect enough.