Biking, Failure, and the Myth of Perfection
Iowa doesn’t seem like a big state until you’re 150 miles into it, on day two of a week-long bike ride. But it is. It’s long and hilly and hot. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes they run out of pork chops along the side of the road.
Sometimes you have to stop. And that’s where I was.
RAGBRAI – the Register’s Annual Great Big Race Across Iowa – was a kind of legend in our house growing up. My father had made it all the way across when I was just a kid, and though he never did it again it was still a point of pride. It was a dream to me – to take a week off work and family and life and just ride, 75-some miles a day, alone and in my thoughts beside my wife and tens of thousands of other like-minded people.
More than that, though, it was a dream to find myself at the finish. To hold up my bike after dunking it in the Mississippi. To conquer Iowa.
And I had all the confidence I could do it. Until we approached Emmetsburg.
My knee tweaked. I fought the pain and kept going, riding harder, pushing up hills, against the wind, trying to stay in line. And, finally, as I rode into town, our resting spot for the night, the pain became too much.
Five blocks from our camp, I got off my bike.
I could barely walk. My eyes were stinging from sunscreen. I limped along.
And then I cried. Because I wasn’t going to be riding the next day – if at all. The dream was done, and I wasn’t prepared for how much that would hurt.
Sometimes, I speak at conferences. And while my talks are about methodology, and making things smaller and more usable for resource-strapped teams, and empathy for co-workers and editors, I ultimately fall on a common topic: the myth of perfection.
I talk about how the web is an imperfect ball of twine, tangled and knotted and unable to be smoothed out. There are inconsistencies that can no longer be unraveled. We are all learning this as we go. Rah Rah Do Your Best.
I stand up in front of rooms of 20 and crowds of 300 and I talk about how we can’t be perfect, and people tweet things and they come up to me after and say how great it is that I’m talking about how imperfect we all are and how brave. And that’s awesome. Except.
Except, really, it’s not about them, is it?
Over the past five years, through dozens of talks and articles, from conversations with clients and co-workers, among friends, at bars, as we’re walking, I stress the importance of finding value in the lack of perfection. This is my soapbox. This is what I think I believe.
But I’m not trying to convince an audience of attendees or peers. I’m trying to convince myself.
I know there are people out there who understand that perfection is a myth. Hell, I understand perfection is a myth. But I’ll be damned if I ever remember that when I’m staring down a deadline, tweaking and primping some unnecessary details, my head filling with doubt, my gut twisting like it’s spent too much time in the Gravitron.
I understand, but I rarely believe. I’m there, every time. Trying to make things perfect.
That’s what we’re taught. That perfection is accessible, that giving 110% percent is a goal. The urge to “try our best” is, by definition, reaching out for perfection – doing our best to make something perfect. Something flawless.
That’s a great thing to be able to do. That’s why we try to maximize our productivity, and that’s why we learn new things, and improve our methods, and practice practice practice.
It’s not that we shouldn’t try to be perfect – to make things as good as they can get. It’s just that we have to redefine what perfect means. To understand that being perfect doesn’t mean overanalyzing everything. That being perfect is a point in the distance that we drive toward, a black tower that guides our path.
Perfect’s a good goal, as long as we understand we’ll never make it there. You can still win the pennant even without a perfect game.
I Used To…
And with that, I can look back at all of my failures and realize what really happened.
I used to be a photographer. I used to be a teacher. I used to read and I used to write a lot more.
I used to be patient. I used to understand.
I used to be a lot of things, and I had reasons for letting off. I saw people who had done it better, or I had recognized my own inconsistencies. I gave the fuck up. I just figured if I’m not going all out – if I’m not impressing people – then what’s the point in trying.
And that’s too bad. I sought perfection in places where I’d never find it – not with my limited attention, not with my personal quirks.
But I’m getting there. I’m getting confident enough to try again. I’m just doing. I’m not worrying whether things will work out. I’m just doing the work, understanding it doesn’t need to be perfect. I’m just doing things. And I’m just doing it for me.
Finishing Over Completion
The end is the end, no matter how many miles you rode in the middle. You get to the Mississippi, and you dip your tire in. RAGBRAI is over. You made it.
For a split second, I thought I had. And then I remembered day three. Who was I to claim this feeling? Who was I to say I rode RAGBRAI?
It wasn’t until the drive back – seven of us in the back of a camper, drinking Coors Light, our bikes wedged into the front and our sunburned legs wedged into the back – that I understood what RAGBRAI was. Not the start and finish. Not the miles, or the hills. It was the people. The community.
In the back, we had four people who had ridden every mile – sometimes more. We had two who had taken a day off to rest. We had one who had only ridden three of the seven days. But together in that camper, as things got dark and we retreated back west, erasing every mile, we were all riders.
Perfection be damned. There’s always future rides. At that moment, we were all together as finishers, even if we hadn’t completed it.