Fakes and Flaws


Embracing Imperfection in a World of Synthetic Perfection

At a gemstone fair in Munich years ago, I was on a mission to find the perfect emerald for my wife. I’d just wrapped up my pearl trade business and was ready to splurge. After some serious searching, I stumbled upon a beautiful emerald that was just shy of a carat. It was a stretch for my wallet, but I thought it would be worth it. So, I took my treasure to Otto Poulson, a legendary jeweler known for his craftsmanship.

Otto put the stone under his microscope and studied it carefully. He went pale and wouldn’t speak for what felt like five or ten minutes but was probably only two or three! Then he broke into a smile and said, “I found it. I found the flaw!” He went on to explain, “My initial concern was that this emerald was too impeccable, suspiciously synthetic. You see, nothing in nature is without its imperfections.”

You see, nothing in nature is without its imperfections.

“Nothing in nature is without its imperfections.” Those words bore profound implications, reshaping my perspective on life. Throughout my existence, I’d been burdened by an unrelenting pursuit of flawlessness, a relentless pressure stemming from my upbringing, educators, peers, and the societal expectations of perfection. Being the son of a distinguished rabbi only amplified this demand. In my youth, I imagined hidden cameras tracking my every step, a reality show of perfection. Even in adulthood, the discovery of a minor flaw in my presentations or speeches would unleash days of anguish.

Vulnerability, Trust, and Intimacy

Otto’s wisdom gradually began to thaw my perfectionist veneer, revealing the importance of vulnerability in building trust. It became clear to me that projecting an image of infallibility only fomented suspicion, as no one can authentically embody perfection. Of course, I’m not suggesting we should air every single flaw for the world to see. We all project images that are a bit shinier than reality, depending on who we’re dealing with. Where trust is high, we will reveal more. In a truly intimate relationship, we feel safe enough to expose our true selves with all our flaws and vulnerabilities.

Our imperfections, far from being mere idiosyncrasies, are the residue of life’s journey. Just as an unblemished gemstone is likely a synthetic creation, a life devoid of missteps is a work of fiction. Our mistakes often serve as the catalyst for serendipity, offering a window into the recesses of our subconscious. The carefully curated images we project, are the creations of our conscious minds, often intended to craft a pristine illusion, sometimes even to deceive. In contrast, our mistakes emanate from our subconscious, unmasking the chasm between our authentic selves and our desired personas. In the words of Brian Eno, we should “honor our mistakes as a hidden intention.”

Honor your mistakes as a hidden intention.

The messiness of human connection

The pursuit of perfection extends beyond the realm of personal development. In the quest for flawless products, modern society often leans on the power of robotics and artificial intelligence to eliminate imperfections in the products we make. However, if we apply this drive for perfection to art and human connection, we may inadvertently introduce a synthetic quality into the creative process depriving it of the capacity to inspire. AI can create a flawless painting or poem, but art is about the process of living, feeling, making mistakes, experimenting, and sometimes succeeding.

Authentic connection inspires the quest for human greatness

Consuming art is also a process. People spend hours gazing at a masterpiece in a gallery or rereading their favorite books over and over. Would we do the same with art that’s been artificially created and is nearly perfect but lacks the soul of a messy, imperfect, human process? A robot can tutor a student to solve their math problems or compose their essay. But can a robot convey empathy and caring to the student who thirsts for authentic humanity as much as he strives for perfect grades? Establishing empathetic connection is inefficient, it is slow, and it inevitably entails faux pars. Yet this very empathetic connection inspires not perfection, but the quest for true human greatness.

So, here’s the challenge for leaders, and for all of us, really:

  • Embrace the paradox. Acknowledge the flaws and vulnerabilities in our lives and our creative processes but strive for perfection in the products we produce and the services we provide.
  • Command respect and authority with your polished image, but make sure it aligns with your true self, and never take it too seriously—it’s just an image.
  • When you inevitably blunder, celebrate it! You’re flawed, but that’s what makes you human, real, and natural. Because, in a world increasingly obsessed with synthetic perfection, the lesson remains clear: Nothing in nature is without its imperfections.