Transcript of Jack Ridl's TEDx Talk: Perfectly Imperfect
Speaker: Jack Ridl
Think of something that you used to do, that you loved to do, that did something for you while you were doing it. Brought you something. Everybody thinking of one?
Now think of that thing that you gave up that you'd love to do. You gave up because you were, yeah, not good enough. Wasn't "good enough." Gave it up.
The only thing Americans don't give up that they aren't any good at it is golf.
Before every one of my classes I would ask the students, to think that same thing. "Raise your hand." I'd ask them if they've given up something that really mattered to them. Something they loved. And in all the years of teaching, every single student put a hand up. There was never a student who didn't put a hand up. So, like an honorable teacher, I gave them an assignment and that was the graduation, when they walked across and got that diploma, they had reclaimed at least one of those things that they'd given up.
We learned this saying that ‘anything worth doing is worth doing well.’ I don't disagree with that at all, not at all. But that's not how it's translated most of the time. Most of the time it's translated as it's ONLY worth doing if you do it well. And that's a lie.
You know, it's along with "sticks and stones break your bones, but words can never hurt you." You know, words could ruin your life too. Words don't heal.
It's only worth doing if you do it well. It's not true. There are more, many, many, many, many more important reasons. You don't have to be, in fact, you can even do something imperfectly and something wonderful can come out of it.
I get all my ideas from our daughter. She couldn't be here today to give this speech, so I'm doing that [in her place]. So, thinking back, she's about five or six and it's the holidays and I say, “Mimi, how about we go out and put some lights up around the door?” And she said, “That’s cool. That'd be good.” So, we'd go out and dad gets the hammer and tacks. Oh, all the way down to the bottom over here with those tacks. We'll get the string of lights and dad goes down here, up to the top over the door. Mm. Mm, mm, mm. “Mimi I told you dad's not so good at this. We've got to start over.” She said, “No, no, don't start over.” I said, “You kidding me? What do you mean? Look” And she said, “no, no, no, no. Don't start over.” I said, “why?”
She said, “because it's perfectly imperfect.” Perfectly imperfect and she was right. We left them that way. Everybody who came by was utterly charmed by that. They didn't, they couldn't explain it. There was something just warm and wonderful about those perfectly imperfect lights.
When that same daughter was little, I mean really little, crib little, we knew right away she was going to be an artist. Right away, and so I, as a wise father, began to use the Mozart effect on her. You're familiar with that? I would lean over her crib and I would whisper: law school. Accounting. It didn't work. She was such an artist as a little kid, we finally had to put up a big sheet of paper beside her bed so that when she would wake up, she would draw, paint, color. Wish I still had those. I probably make some bucks on them. And then, when she got a little bit older, she said, philosophically, she said, “What's art?”
Now I have colleagues just down the street or heads of departments who would spend most of their life talking about that. I told them backstage this was perfectly imperfect that they'd have to come out and redo this. Okay. She said, “Is it a place?” We said, “It's a place. It's a place where you'd go, where you can be yourself, where you're not distracted by everything else, where you can make discoveries and magical things can happen. It's a place."
You don't have to do it well, and doing something well is so often defined as excellent. "Excellent." I spent my years in a college. Colleges and universities are always pursuing excellence. Everybody's pursuing excellence. You have no idea how many people quit because they think they have to pursue it.
Now I need to clarify I'm not opposed to excellence when it comes to heart surgery. Okay? So we're not, we're not going there. I'm just talking about those things you love to do and to not discourage all those people around you by saying the only reason they do it is you have to do it well. No, no you don’t. It's not a reason to give anything up. And, besides, if we are constantly obsessed with the pursuit of excellence, we can forget that it's not benign.
Story. I have an advisee, Lisa. Lisa was graduating with 4.0s, applied to nine law schools, got into all of them and chose the most important one, the prestigious one. She called me on graduation day and asked if I could meet her in my office. I said, “Sure, Lisa.”
So I'm in the office, Lisa comes in and she starts to cry. I'm thinking, Oh boy, I've got to channel Dr Phil, channel Dr Phil. She's really crying. And I said, “Well Lisa, sorry you're crying. I know it's a moving and emotional day and there are things you leave behind with school.” And she finally caught her breath and she said, “No, that's really not it.” And I said, “well, what?”
And she said, “I missed it. I missed the whole thing. I never went to a play. I never went to a concert or dance. I never joined a service group. I don't even remember ever going out for pizza with anybody who is my friend. I missed the whole thing and I can't get it back. And I know I could've gotten good grades and I know I would've gotten into law school anyway.”
See, it's not benign. In her words she was hurt by pursuing excellence and that it's only worth doing if you do it well.
Education is notorious for pursuing excellence, as I said. And we're caught up in evaluations and rankings and grading. And when I started teaching, with my poetry students, they would show me a poem and I'd say, “Oh, look what you could do here. Look, look, look, look, look.” And I'd look at them and then boom, all they heard was it wasn't good enough.
But they also heard something else. And that was that their grade went down, it was always the grade went down no matter what. I couldn't come up with anything to convince them. So the only sane thing I thought of to do was to get rid of grades by giving them all A’s. I was worried at first that I'd get that reputation. He's an easy A. Boy, am I! I was also worried that students might blow it off. Never happened. And the surprising thing was relinquishing that excellence, that "A equals excellence" idea, getting rid of it, they just thrived, they wanted more. It was gone. I'd lowered their standards. I'd eliminated rigor and substituted joy and meaningfulness and things that matter.
Now, I was confronted by the group of faculty members, who very gently came up to me and said, “It seems to us that uh, you have no academic standards.” And my wise guy inner imp thought to reply, “You're right, my standards are just a lot higher than that.”
See, we depend on the imperfect. It's what's soulful, it's what keeps us human and caring. We can go to the Royal Shakespeare Company and see a production of King Lear and it will be fabulous and it will be excellent and I'm not demeaning it at all, but we can also - out of my tradition - go to a Christmas third grade pageant and Mary will be waving at grandma and Joseph will be picking his nose, the wise men will be punching each other; and we'll remember it forever.
When Mimi was seven, we were taking a walk and she looks up and she says, “Dad, I know the most important word in the world.” All right. What is it? And she said, “Its with.” Okay, well, you know, don't be. Be the sensitive dad of the 70s and the 80s.
“Well Mimi why is it with?”
She said, “Because we're always with, we can't not be with. We're always with someone or something or ourselves. We can't not be with.”
Okay, gotcha. I'm registering, Oh philosophical daughter going into art.
"What does that mean to you, Mimi?”
And she said, “It means you have to try always to create a really good with.” She didn't say an excellent with, she said a really good with.
Okay, I'm going to finish with a poem. Feel a little like Valvano. They're counting my time now. Like I care. You know. The poem is "really good."
The title of the poem is: "After hearing the professor say she's just an average student."
Oh, great. Never to be that bully Excellent.
Not even the bland and shy acolyte Good.
Average. Simply average like all the Robbins, Jays, Juncos, Chickadees.
Even wood ducks, those charmingly helmeted Harlequins who never arrived without floating a surprise over any creek or pond. All right average when it comes to wood ducks.
Elephants, unless they rival the heft and height of jumbo are well average elephants.
Experts of course determine what is above average.
Whether elephant or student. While trillium, sweet Woodruff, owls, moles and goldenrod hold to the way they had to become. They cannot rise to the rigor of demand or slough off into a lower caste. Those who know can say wedding veils is indeed an excellent vine, argue its worth over, say honey separable.
But wedding veil was always wedding veil. Wisteria is wisteria just as, let's say kudzu is kudzu, the wisteria cascading it's blossoms down and through a pergola, the kudzu climbing and twisting its way around it tree's trunk into his branches.
For all I know, I'm an average coffee drinker spending an average early morning watching an average squirrel search for average acorns in our average yard readying for another average winter.